Thursday, December 09, 2004

What Controls History

Yesterday, over at Legal Fiction, Publius penned a great post regarding the Ayatollah al-Sistani's importance to the future of Iraq. In doing this, he began by discussing one of the great debates in historical study: the role of the individual in historical change.


The "Great Person" (yes, I'm that PC) theory is a response to one of the most fundamental questions in the discipline of history: What is the source of historical change? To me, I've always thought that this theory provided a kindergarten-level answer to that question - or at best, training wheels that get you ready for the real lessons. For example, when people first start learning about history in school, they inevitably begin with some variation of the Great Person theory. Hitler caused World War II. Lincoln saved the Union. George Washington was the cause of the American Revolution. Given the horrendous state of our history education, Americans don't learn until college (or never at all) the role of broader economic, demographic, and social forces.

Put another way, the Great Person Theory provides a tip-of-the-iceberg view of history, and that view usually extends to current events as well. For example, focusing on OJ or Rodney King is less important than understanding the underlying racial and economic tensions that elevated these news stories on to the national scene in the first place. Similarly, focusing on George Washington is less important than understanding the underlying economic tensions that led to the American Revolution. Likewise, focusing on Brown v. Board is less important than understanding the broader effects of World War II, the Great Migration, the growth of the black middle class, and the efforts of brave civil rights workers.

But there is a more advanced level of the "Great Person" theory that must grappled with (sort of like in Mike Tyson's Punch-Out when you fight the easy Bald Bull early, and then the really tough Bald Bull later on). The Great Person theory is a subset of contingency theory. The contingency people would argue that history is far less determined than people like me tend to think. To them, what we call "the present" is usually the product of random, arbitrary (or "contingent") events that could have easily gone the other way. For example, if Robert E. Lee had formed a guerrilla army (which he toyed around with), the American South would have fought on for many more years, if not generations (sort of like Northern Ireland) - and our country would be a lot different. If George Bush hadn't invaded Iraq, things would be very different in the Middle East.

Now, I'm no historian and therefore I have been spared the details of the debate. But, I get the feeling that something is missing from this discussion. It seems to me that reasonable adherents to either position would shy away from absolutism. "Great Person" theorists would acknowledge the role of broader deterministic forces, while deterministic theorists would accept the possibility that are individual action can occasionally steer historical change. Therefore, the debate is not so much about which theory is correct, but rather about which theory controls in any given situation.

I'd like to take this one step further. I believe that not only are both theories true, but that they are in fact different expressions of the same theory

Let me explain.

When one talks of broader deterministic forces, what is actually being discussed? What are, for example, economic forces? I would argue that they are, in fact, the aggregation of millions of individual economic decisions. Social forces, migratory patterns, demographics, etc. can all be similarly viewed as the aggregation of choices made by individuals. Naturally, these choices are affected by the context in which they're made. Nevertheless, the choices are ultimately made by individuals and will vary widely in response to individual predilections.

Of course, it's useful to think about this aggregation in terms of larger forces, especially when there is so much feedback between the aggregate and the individual. But, in the context of this debate I believe it's important to see the connection between them.

How does this enlighten our understanding of history? I suggest that everything turns on the decisions of individuals -- sometimes on one decision and sometimes on millions of decisions. Another way to look at it is that history is the complete aggregation of all individual choices (with a splash of chaotic natural events thrown in for variety). The significance of each decision varies based on the situation in which the decision is made, thus individuals in influential positions can have wide ranging effects (justifying contingency theory) while average Joes tend to be at the mercy of the crowd (justifying deterministic theory). But both theories ultimately rest on the same fundamental phenomenon, that being the actions of individuals. Everything beyond that is semantic convenience.

Update: fixed small grammatical error -- boy, am I anal.
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