History: Great Events or Great Men and Great Women?

 

One of the abiding debates in History is whether it is shaped primarily by vast forces at work in human civilizations or by great, the term is not used in a moral sense, men and women who shape the times in which they lived.  It is tempting to fudge the question and say both, an easy answer and partially true.  Napoleon would doubtless have ended his career on half pay as a Major serving in the Royal artillery of France but for the French Revolution.  However, it is impossible to see the French Revolution morphing into the French Empire without the drive, extreme military genius and grandiose vision of Napoleon.  I think it is also impossible to see the French Revolution occurring or prevailing except for Louis XVI, a good man and perhaps the most incompetent of French monarchs being, on the throne of France in 1789.  No, I am fully in the camp of historians who believe history is shaped mostly by great individuals.  Behind the scenes of course all of this is being stage managed for His purposes, within the limits of human free will, by God, but that is to leave History and enter the realm of theology.

Recently I read the book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the Twenty-First Century (2013) by Christian Caryl.  It is an astonishingly good book and shows how four figures:  Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Deng Xiaoping, Ayatollah Khomeini, each, in their own way, led counter-revolutions against the drift towards Socialism that was the dominant theme of the world post World War II up till 1979.  Of course there was a fifth figure at that time, perhaps the most important of them all, who was preparing a campaign which would drive from power an incumbent President and alter the course of American, and world, history, Ronald Reagan.  Reagan is a large figure in Caryl’s chapters on Thatcher, but I think he explored the other four individuals in making his argument, because they are much less well known, with the possible exception of Pope John Paul II, to most Americans than Reagan.

Thatcher made an odd Prime Minister of Great Britain, and not primarily because of her sex.  As she climbed the greasy pole of British politics, her opponents sneered at her lower middle class origins, calling her “the grocer’s daughter”.  I doubt if Thatcher minded.  Most of her world view she acquired from her father, an intensely religious and conservative man, who treasured hard work and drive, and preached the need for limited government and the importance of the free market.  He taught his daughter never to follow the crowd and to stand unhesitatingly for what she thought was right.  In her radical embrace of free markets and her intense Euro-skepticism, Thatcher stood in sharp contrast to the well bred elites who tended to dominate the Conservative Party.  What Thatcher proclaimed, they argued sotto voce, was well enough to say when stumping for votes, but to actually govern that way would be a disaster.  She proved them wrong and they never forgave her for it, ultimately replacing her in 1990 with the colorless non-entity John Major, who would lead the Tories to their worst electoral defeat ever in 1997 at the hands of Tony Blair and his more market oriented New Labor.  Thatcher died in 2013, her passing marked by displays of raw hate by the far Left in the UK.  (I suspect that Thatcher would have viewed these grotesque displays of bile as the finest tribute paid to her!)  The hatred was well earned.  Thatcher had planted well.  No British government could return to pre-Thatcher Socialism and her Euro-skepticism was prophetic of the Brexit vote in 2016.  Rather than being shaped by her times primarily, Thatcher shaped the times to come.

 

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6 Comments

  1. The framing is off.

    History isn’t an actual thing– it’s at least half a story. GOOD history is going to not have objective falsehoods, but why it’s made, and what they’re trying to understand, is going to change the history.

    The “great man” theory is like how on NCIS, there’s only one guy doing autopsies, etc– everybody is doing the stuff a whole bleepin’ department would actually be doing.
    In the opposite direction, it’s like the way that some stories basically make countries into characters– not just the “Uncle Sam” type thing, but stuff like where America is the Marine cousin who is kiiiiiiinda crazy, and gets a lot of crud, but when the coastie Canada needs a hand we’re there.

    It’s a means of trying to understand What Happened, when What Happened is uncounted numbers of folks exercising free will and dealing with the existing situation. Some in good ways, some in bad ways– and some in ways that were the tipping point for something big.

  2. Half story, half method, half philosophy, half didactic moralizing, half political agenda setting,

    All Inquiry

  3. “The world’s greatest need is great men”
    – Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, The World’s Greatest Need (Address delivered January 31, 1932)

    Remember this going forward friends, and you’ll answer many questions.

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