From Caesar to Joan of Arc, Pythagoras to Marie Sklodowska-Curie, Cicero to Catherine the Great, history is often presented as a chronology of the deeds of greats who defined their era and advanced mankind. This seems fairly logical and natural. After all, the individual soldier has very little influence over the outcome of a battle, much like the individual senator has very little influence over the outcome of a parliamentary vote. This perspective on history, with the lives of the ordinary described only as results rather than causes of circumstances, is as old as western literature itself. The Iliad, a founding work of the western canon, cares little for ordinary individuals—but might simply be the consequence of a human desire for easy explanations.
After all, it’s convenient to write off the Second World War as a result of Hitler’s charisma, evil, and willingness to exploit the woes of interbellum Germany: while it is recognised that there were circumstances which made his rise to power possible, the devolution of the Weimar Republic into a dictatorship and the subsequent outbreak of war are largely ascribed to Hitler as an individual person. Similarly, Octavian is credited with many of the early successes of the Roman Empire, and Margaret Thatcher is blamed for the closing of many coal mines in the north of England. No matter the background events, the narrative is the same: in the end it is the greatness or wickedness of one individual who exploited these events to bring about a certain outcome. Individuality is essential in history.
However, the author Tolstoy, ironically also seen as one of history’s greats, doesn’t agree with this conventional narrative. In his eyes, great men are nothing more than personifications of their deeds, and their deeds are nothing more than the conclusion, rather than the instigator, of a movement of people that could not have been stopped nor encouraged further even if this individual had tried. In the author’s own words:
“In historical events great men are but labels serving to give a name to the event, and like labels they have the least possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in an historical sense not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history, and predestined from all eternity.”
The idea that the free will of historical actors is being exaggerated is well worth considering, although of course all considerations are nothing but hypotheticals, which are always hard to answer. The example Tolstoy himself gives for this theory is Napoleon. He argues, firstly, that the general was propelled forward by French desire to bring an end to a very troubled period in their history, irrespective of his personal virtues; secondly, that the wars he waged were inevitable due to the French mood at the time, irrespective of his personal ambitions; and, thirdly, that battles were won and lost on the morale of the soldiers, irrespective of his proficiency as a general. It seems like this means moving from the one extreme—absolute responsibility in the hands of an individual—to the other extreme— no responsibility in the hand of an individual.
But it is a point of view worth discussing, especially considering the arguments Tolstoy makes for each of his assertions. The idea that Napoleon might have been propelled by the popular mood rather than his virtues is not a very controversial point, and particularly makes a lot of sense when one what might have happened had there not been the historical, flesh-and-blood Napoleon. The notion that this would immediately have led to the establishment of a liberal democracy in France is, of course, a bit silly and, though it is unlikely that any other random figure would have followed the exact same path as Napoleon, it does not seem outrageous to think that the endpoint would have been roughly the same. After all, even a dictator needs the public mood on his side.
Furthermore, if the public mood was firmly against waging wars of aggression, there was no way the general would have been able to rouse an army to march all the way to the frozen plains of Russia, no matter how good an orator he would have been. No doubt he was inspiring, but it seems that people willing to be inspired can be inspired by any figure: Angela Merkel is widely considered to have little charisma, yet seems to inspire Germany exactly in the way it wants to be inspired.
As to his last point: strategy in battles, as Tolstoy points out himself, tends to quickly break apart and not even Napoleon’s supposed genius could save the French army when its morale was broken. There most certainly is merit to the idea that great individuals of history are nothing more than personalisation of their actions and of the public mood, in order to fulfil a human desire for heroes and convenient explanations. History has shown us time and time again that acting against the public mood or trying to swing it, whether in dictatorship or democracy, tends to end badly for power figures. The inconvenient truth could be that history is nothing but coincidence upon coincidence and that we individuals are woefully unimportant: if so, let’s hope the movement of time might bring us all interesting lives.