The Great Men of History:
What part do the so-called “Great Men of history” play in history and cultural evolution? The answer is double-edged, for it requires an understanding of the distinction between the temporal process of “history” (“a chronological series of events each of which is unique”) and the temporal-formal process of “evolution” (“a series of events in which both time and form are equally significant: one form grows out of another in time”) [Leslie A. White, The Science of Culture: A Study of Man and Civilization. New York: Grove Press, 1949, p. 229.]
Hegel defined the Great Men of History as the “World-Historical Persons whose vocations it was to be the Agents of the World-Spirit.” [Hegel, G. W. F., “Introduction to the Philosophy of history,” in The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche. Ed, Monroe C. Beardsley, 1992 Modern Library Ed., (New York: Modern Library-Random House, 1988) p. 564.] If the “World-Spirit” is deduced here as being the impulse of evolution towards the culmination of its pattern, then we must look to this distinction between history and evolution to place the Great Man in his proper context.
The course of history – being a temporal process of unique events – can be determined as much by, say, the random act of an idiot or by Missus O’Leary’s cow as by the deliberate act of a Great Man. The course of evolution, on the other hand, is a different matter. While we may hope that the course of history determined by the act of the Great Man is different from that determined by the act of a particular cow or a particular idiot, neither he nor they can determine or control the course of cultural evolution. What the Great Man can do and does do, however, is to ride the crest of evolution and obey the imperatives of his culture, an “unconscious impulse that occasion(s) the accomplishment of that for which the time (is) ripe.” [Hegel, p. 563.] This is what distinguishes him from Missus O’Leary’s cow.
But it is not enough for him only to be a man of great capacity; he must also have a crest to ride. He must live in conjunction with, and respond to, the culmination of a cultural pattern of evolution; otherwise he will be lost in obscurity. These “World-historical-men – the Heroes of an epoch – must, therefore, be recognized as its clear-sighted ones; their deeds, their words are the best of that time…. They are great men, because they willed and accomplished something great, not a mere fancy, a mere intention, but what met the case and fell in with the needs of the age.” [Hegel, p. 564.]
The man, then, does not determine the age; it is the age that calls forth the man.
Great Men and the Age of the Machine:
The Age of Agriculture ended in the nineteenth century with the development of technology that could effectively harness solar energy from fossil fuels. With this revolution in fuel technology, steam power replaced muscle power as the prime mover of civilization, and the Age of the Machine was born roaring. The amount of energy harnessed by the Industrial Revolution and the efficiency with which it was put to use increased exponentially as technological evolution synthesized, resulting in the rapid growth and the increasing complexity of nations and empires. Populations in the industrializing cultures doubled and in some cases nearly tripled during the nineteenth century. The rural, aristocratic, agrarian feudal system became obsolete and was replaced by an urban, parliamentary, production-for-sale-at-a-profit economy. With the great increase of population and cheap labor, and with the increasingly complex demands of industrialism, slavery and serfdom were found to be inefficient labor systems and they were abolished. While the basic dichotomy of the class structure remained, the composition of these classes underwent radical change:
Industrial lords and financial barons replaced the landed aristocracy of feudalism as the dominant element in the ruling class, and an urban, industrial proletariat took the place of serfs, peasants, or slaves as the basic element in the subordinate class. Industrial strife took the place of peasant revolts and uprisings of slaves and serfs of earlier days. [White, pp. 384-5.]
White makes an interesting observation of cultural evolution and its technological determinant: as culture evolves the rate of growth is accelerated. As technology synthesizes at an ever-increasing pace, culture is beginning to metastasize – but whether into a single global State or into a state of global frenzy remains to be seen. Meanwhile, we have unlocked the energy of the atom, and again a new revolution is upon us, this time superimposed upon the old. Whether this new wine can be contained in an old wineskin remains to be seen. We are indeed “riding the stream of Time,” as Bismark said [Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, First Vintage Books Ed. (1987; New York: Vintage-Random House, 1989) p. 540.], but any claims of control over it are sounding increasingly more like an anthropocentric whimper.
This realization should not be taken as defeatist. If we are discovering that we cannot control the course of evolution, then we must learn to adjust to it the way a sailor must adjust to the weather and to the conditions of the sea – conditions that he cannot control. In order to adjust to the course of evolution we must learn to predict it like we predict the weather, and, with the experience of a seasoned pilot, learn to “read the river” for its rocks and shoals, its tides and its currents.
To predict the course of evolution, a study of the history of those who have ridden this “river of Time” before us is necessary. And as the accurate marking of channels and hazards is vital if our river chart is to be worth anything, then we must sift history for the Truth. Only then – and with an attitude of humility before the might of the Infinite – may we hope to become successful pilots, like the Great Men of History.