Thursday, February 23, 2012

Agency in history: taking exception to Count Tolstoy

A couple hundred pages ago in my slooooooooooooooow reading of Tolstoy's War and Peace (Vol IV - Part One - Chapter 4), I came across this little tidbit:
In historical events what is most obvious is the prohibition against eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Only unconscious activity bears fruit, and a man who plays a role in a historical event never understands its significance. If he attempts to understand it, he is struck with fruitlessness.

Now I do find myself caught up in the great man's theories. Dressed up as they are with his vividly drawn supporting arguments -- a.k.a. his portrayal of Napolean's invasion of Russia in the early 19th century -- Tolstoy's ideas about history look pretty convincing as one steps through the twelve-hundred-plus pages of War and Peace.

Tolstoy scorns "great man" accounts of historical movement. For pages and pages he argues that neither Napolean's decisions nor the stratagems of his generals had much to do with the outcomes of skirmishes, battles, or even the war itself.

But it's hard to reconcile this emergent view of historical influence -- Only unconscious activity bears fruit -- with modern means of communication. There's a certain antiquity in play here: War and Peace is a novel about Imperial Russia fending off an invasion by a self-declared monarch, a European upstart. Nobody had televisions or radios, let alone cell phones.

Martin Luther King Jr. didn't have a cell phone either, but watch a recording of his 1963 "I have a dream" speech and tell me this man failed to understand his own historical significance:

I didn't think you would.

Here's Tolstoy making his point, from a couple of hundred pages earlier still in War and Peace (Vol III - Part Two - Chapter 25):
"However they say he's a skilled commander," said Pierre.

"I don't understand what is meant by a skilled commander," Prince Andrei said mockingly.

"A skilled commander," said Pierre, "well, he's one who has foreseen all possibilities ... well, who has guessed the thoughts of his adversary."

"That's impossible," said Prince Andrei, as if the matter had long been decided.


"[...] Success never did and never will depend on position, or on ammunition, or even on numbers; but least of all on position."

"But on what then?"

"On the feeling that's in me, in him," he pointed to Timokhin, "in every soldier."

There's something compelling about Prince Andrei's argument. What would it matter how regiments are arrayed if the soldiers who constitute them are afraid, or indifferent, or debilitated by hunger or cold?

We could even leave aside the question of wars and regiments.

Take the current struggle for position to lead the G.O.P. presidential ticket come November's election. A few days ago Timothy Egan wrote a piece published on the NY Times website, The Electoral Wasteland. The numbers he throws around look pretty suspect to me ... where convenient, he measures number of voters participating in a Republican primary with the number of "total registered voters, of all political persuasions." Still. Let's take a look at this bit from Egan's post:
So far, three million voters have participated in the Republican races, less than the  population of Connecticut.  This means that 89 percent of all registered voters in those states have not participated in what is, from a horse-race perspective, a very tight contest.

Yes, we know Republicans don’t like their choices; it’s a meh primary. But still, in some states, this election could be happening in a ghost town. Less than 1 percent of registered voters turned out for Maine’s caucus. In Nevada, where Republican turnout was down 25 percent from 2008, only 3 percent of total registered voters participated.

G.O.P. leaders appear to think they are leading, or at least they're trying hard to project an illusion to that effect. They and their super-PACs are certainly collecting piles and piles of money to fund a malicious and unhinged campaign, one that has little to do with reality and loads to do with rhetoric. In response, the Republican rank and file appear to be shrugging their shoulders and turning their backs. Where is all this headed? Looks to me like an hysterical fringe is well-positioned to pick the G.O.P. ticket, and thereby to hand President Obama a second term ... on a Tea Party platter.

We have another nine months before this prediction plays out, one way or another. But if the G.O.P. fringes its way to flaming defeat we'll have a 21st century example of an historical outcome having nothing to do with positions staked out by leaders, but instead one that is determined by the states of mind and heart among the rest of us.

What do you think?

Is world history shaped by the decisions of leaders, or do leaders ride inexorable waves of socially-determined force and direction? Do we know what we're doing when we try to act in historically determinative ways? Or is a complex, mysterious, incalculable, and ungovernable stew of individual action and decision (and inaction and indecision) the driving force of history?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Slow reading: Tolstoy's War and Peace
Portraiture and history: Masters of Venice at the de Young Museum
Hidden Histories
Art as long as history, time beyond memory
Time, History, and Human Forgetting

Thanks to Mary Harrsch for her photo of a section of the Capitoline Museum's mural of Roman History.

1 comment:

  1. I am tempted to say that it seems all the worst despots understood their significance, at least to a certain degree.

    I think a random forceful leader do have great impact on the current of events, this is not to say that sometimes these kind of persons emerged due to the historical demand. But they do shape the world in a way much more particular.

    History has a general trend but in every segment it is very singular.

    Matthew Felix Sun