Posted by: aboutalbion | May 9, 2012

What is History? (2)

Is the ‘great person’ theory of history satisfactory?  This post continues yesterday’s reading of chapter 2 of Carr’s ‘What is History?’.

Carr critiques the ‘common-sense view of history … as something written by individuals about individuals.  …  … we shall arrive at no real understanding either of the past or of the present if we attempt to operate with the concept of an abstract individual standing outside society’. (p29)  He shows no sympathy view such as ‘history is the biography of great men’ (Carlyle) and ‘the history of modern Europe can be written in terms of three titans: Napoleon, Bismark and Lenin’. (Taylor, AJP (1950) From Napoleon to Stalin, p74)

Carr argues, persuasively in my view, that the tension between freedom and social justice in a society – one of the engines of perpetual change – is not a contest between theoretical ideas but between ‘groups of individuals in society, each group striving to promote social policies favourable to it and to frustrate social policies inimical to it.’ (p28)

What I think Carr is saying, and what I would argue, is that an individual’s identity is the obverse of the ideology of the group to which he belongs.  That means that both the historian in the present and an interesting individual in the past are ‘both the product, and the conscious or unconscious spokesman, of the society to which [they] belong’. (p29)

This position gives Carr the opportunity to distinguish between a rebel and a leader.  A person who is at odds with the society in which s/ he lives, and who does not exercise an influence over any followers, is a rebel.  Carr argues that such people do not represent a social force and are hardly likely to come to the attention of historians.  Whereas a person who is at odds with the society in which s/ he lives, and who does exercise an influence over followers, is a potential leader of a social movement.

Carr suggests that people like Wat Tyler and Yemelyan Pugachov function as leaders of social forces rather than as rebels.  He instances Friedrich Nietzsche as a person who was a lonely rebel during his lifetime, but who became a dominant influence of several social movements after his death.

Is the ‘great person’ theory of history satisfactory?  ‘No’ is the opinion of Carr.   He concludes that the great person ‘is always representative either of existing forces, or of forces which [s/he] helps to create by way of challenge to existing authority’. (p48f)

[Carr, E H (2001) What is History? Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.]

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