"History is a set of lies agreed upon.” - Napoléon Bonaparte
Carlyle stated that "The history of the world is but the biography of great men". According to ‘the great man theory’, history can be largely explained by the impact of great men, or heroes; highly influential individuals who used their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact. Similarly there are villain stories involving people like Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, etc. But these stories lack the nuances of the many, many people involved and of the concepts and causes that influenced the events that are attributed to them.
The Great Person theory is available in the historical models of people all over the world. We put a name and face to a particular discovery or event, and that person then becomes the visible representative for all of the individuals involved. Its simplicity makes the past seem rather straightforward which makes it attractive. For most historians this is a grotesque parody of how history actually works. Of course great men and women do exist who have had massive influence on various historical events.
But the creations of these “Great People” are almost inevitably dependent on many people who came before them and acted along with them. Describing all of the contributions of colleagues and rivals who influenced the unfolding of historical events would be well beyond the scope of most history textbooks. The problem is that people may never really understand that this narrative is just a shorthand and not the full picture. As Edwad O. Wilson said, 'Genius is the summed production of the many with the names of the few attached for easy recall.'
At the other end of the spectrum in his view of history is somebody like Tolstoy who thought that these ‘great men’ are basically ordinary men who are too vain to recognize their own unimportance in the unfolding of events. He felt that, just like a writer of fiction, a historian is also a creative writer who gives us his particular slant of what happened depending on his prejudices and fantasies. In his essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, Issiah Berlin writes about Tolstoy’s view of history as presented in his novel War and Peace:
Tolstoy’s bitterest taunts, his most corrosive irony, are reserved for those who pose as official specialists in managing human affairs, in this case the Western military theorists, …who are all shown talking equal nonsense …, whether they defend a given strategic or tactical theory or oppose it; these men must be impostors, since no theories can possibly fit the immense variety of possible human behaviour, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effects which form that interplay of men and nature which history purports to record.
Those who affect to be able to contract this infinite multiplicity within their ‘scientific’ laws must be either deliberate charlatans or blind leaders of the blind. The harshest judgment is accordingly reserved for the master theorist himself, the great Napoleon, who acts upon, and has hypnotised others into believing, the assumption that he understands and controls events by his superior intellect, or by flashes of intuition, or by otherwise succeeding in answering correctly the problems posed by history. The greater the claim the greater the lie: Napoleon is consequently the most pitiable, the most contemptible of all the actors in the great tragedy.
This, then, is the great illusion which Tolstoy sets himself to expose: that individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events. Those who believe this turn out to be dreadfully mistaken. And side by side with these public faces – these hollow men, half self-deluded, half aware of being fraudulent, talking, writing desperately and aimlessly in order to keep up appearances and avoid the bleak truths – side by side with all this elaborate machinery for concealing the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance and blindness lies the real world, the stream of life which men understand, the attending to the ordinary details of daily existence. When Tolstoy contrasts this real life – the actual, everyday, ‘live’ experience of individuals – with the panoramic view conjured up by historians, it is clear to him which is real, and which is a coherent, sometimes elegantly contrived, but always fictitious construction.
Utterly unlike her as he is in almost every other respect, Tolstoy is, perhaps, the first to propound the celebrated accusation which Virginia Woolf half a century later levelled against the public prophets of her own generation – Shaw and Wells and Arnold Bennett – blind materialists who did not begin to understand what it is that life truly consists of, who mistook its outer accidents, the unimportant aspects which lie outside the individual soul – the so-called social, economic, political realities – for that which alone is genuine, the individual experience, the specific relation of individuals to one another, the colours, smells, tastes, sounds and movements, the jealousies, loves, hatreds, passions, the rare flashes of insight, the transforming moments, the ordinary day-to-day succession of private data which constitute all there is – which are reality.