by Chet Richards
Leo Tolstoy, in an essay about War and Peace, debates whether history is shaped by Historical Forces or by Great Men. Indeed, War and Peace itself is Tolstoy’s way of exploring this dichotomy. He comes down on the side of Historical Forces. He downplays the importance of Great Men. Great Men, he says, are thrown up when needed by powerful Historical Forces that are beyond anyone’s control. If one historical Great Man didn’t exist, then Historical Forces would toss up another to take his place.
Powerful Historical Forces do exist, and we are caught up in them. The rest of Tolstoy’s thesis is problematic. There is something much deeper going on that I believe Tolstoy missed. He failed to ask what causes Historical Forces. He did not recognize that occasionally a single individual can be a pivot around which history itself revolves to proceed in an entirely new direction.
This pivotal individual might be the creator of an idea, or he might be a leader at a critical time.