Sunday, May 30, 2010

Alexander And The Great Man Theory Of History

I recently watched Oliver Stone's 2004 bio-epic about the life of Alexander the Great, Alexander, and while it's not by any stretch of the imagination a great movie - a script that's too meaty in some places and too thin in others and Stone's histrionic direction prevent that - it does illuminate interesting data point in the long-running academic debate about historical causation.

The so-called "great man" theory of history, that history is determined by the actions of exceptional individuals, has been under fire for more than a century. Tolstoy savaged it in War and Peace, and academics beginning with Herbert Spencer have subjected it to ever-increasing skepticism as ostensibly more scientific theories emphasizing economic, sociological, and geographical factors, such as Marxist historical materialism and Guns, Germs, and Steel-style environmental determinism, have come into intellectual vogue. Rather than focusing on the personalities or choices of the individuals involved in them, it has become the preferred mode of the historian to analyze events as the results of complex webs of historical causation, and to argue that in many cases underlying social, economic, and political conditions made them, if not inevitable, then highly probable. There is definitely some validity to this mode of analysis - it's hard to look at, say, the state of the Catholic church in 15th century Europe, and conclude that the emergence of a reformist leader of the ilk of Martin Luther wasn't extremely likely, or to make sense of the decisions of the Japanese empire in the period between World Wars I and II without being aware of that country's desperate need for steel, rubber, oil, and other material resources. Nevertheless, solely materialistic explanatory models have their limits as well, and Alexander the Great is a perfect illustration thereof.

It's hard to look at what the man did - expand a tiny, backwater northern Greek kingdom into a vast empire that stretched thousands of miles across three continents, and spread Greek cultural, philosophical, and artistic influences throughout it - and plausibly attribute to it any sort of purely materialistic explanation or sense of historical inevitability. Even if there were some inevitable historical impetus spurring the Greeks to expand their civilizational reach to the east - a highly debatable proposition, in my opinion - it's impossible to see it happening so quickly or extensively without a leader of Alexander's military brilliance, far-reaching vision, philosophical ambition, and political savvy. If Greek ideas diffuse slowly through the cultures of the middle east rather than arriving in a sudden, massive wave, Hellenistic influence may not have taken root in Baghdad or Persepolis until much later, if at all, and the Arabic civilization of the Middle Ages may have looked very different. It might not have preserved and expanded upon the knowledge of the ancient Greeks, and or reimported it into Europe when it conquered Spain. The knowledge, if it were to survive, would have done so in a different form, and the Renaissance, if it were to happen, would have happened very differently. The whole picture is obviously very complex, and deterministic forces no doubt do play a role, but it is nevertheless pretty difficult to see things unfolding the same way they did if Alexander never lives, or lives but is a man of lesser ability.

The debate among historians about the influence of individuals versus the deterministic power of large-scale historical forces will no doubt go on, possibly forever. To me, however, Alexander the Great is a clear example proving that the former matters at least somewhat.

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