Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Of Greatness and History (War and Peace)

"A king is history's slave. History, that is, the unconscious, general, hive life of mankind uses every moment of the life of kings as a tool for its own purposes."
-War and Peace, Book 9

War and Peace raises an interesting question regarding the purpose of the so-called "great" men and women of history. Are they remembered as great because they were some sort of super-humans or because they knew the people under them and the times? Perhaps they wrote history to feature themselves prominently.

Isn't it funny how times are remembered? When we think of Tudor England, we think of King Henry VIII and his wives, somehow attributing the cause of the Reformation in England to his caprice with regards to making himself Head of the Church of England. In fact, the Reformation was already a gigantic wave heading for shore. Henry VIII just leaped on a surfboard and claimed to command the wave.

Indeed, Henry VIII wanted England to basically remain Catholic, with the only difference being him at the head of the church instead of the pope. Only in this way could Henry guarantee his freedom from an unproductive marriage. The Reformation continued in England regardless of Henry's attempts to stop it or slow it down. The huge wave deposited Surfer Henry on the changed map of religious England, and gave him all the credit for the change. So, especially in history books written more than 50 years ago, we remember Henry VIII as critical to the Reformation. Which he was not.

In War and Peace, this theme is expounded upon using the characters of Napoleon and Kutuzov (the Russian Commander in Chief). The main difference between the two is that Napoleon thought he, as a simple surfer, controlled the wave, while Kutuzov knew the real force behind his movement. In the end, that is why Napoleon lost and Kutuzov won; Napoleon's fall did not begin with the orders he gave as he entered Moscow, but simply in the fact that he thought he controlled everything. Kutuzov, a simple man, was smart enough to know that he was not in control, and he was able to use the forces driving him to chase Napoleon out of the country. Kutuzov saw the bigger picture, and Napoleon thought it was all about him.

This brings us to the question: "What is history?" Why do we remember the lone surfer standing upon the changed beach and not the great wave? Tolstoy talks about the Science of History. Does that mean history can be broken down scientifically just as we have broken down the joy of a sunset into the air molecules and light particles that make it so colorful? Do we dare break down history that way?

What will that leave us with?

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