The Sweep of the Mantle of God

March 17, 2012 § 5 Comments


More What If: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (Cowley, Robert)

The central argument of this collection of essays, the one that each of the two dozen eminent contributors takes pains to assert, is that history is made by great men and women, or at any rate, by individual acts of bravery, cowardice or whim, and by choices and coincidences that could very easily have been different; and further, that had they been different, history would been very different as well.

Opposed to this school of thought (let’s call it the ‘Micro’ Theory) is the theory that history is the by-product of the ebb and flow of grand economic and social waves that wash across the world over millennia, le longue duree as Braudel calls it, and that individuals are just minnows caught in the maelstrom; we may think they are making a difference, but they, as much as everyone else, are merely being swept along by the current. As Nassim Taleb says in the Black Swan (reviewed in these pages), in the end we are being driven by history, all the while thinking that we are doing the driving.

The Micro guys think the Macro guys are nuts, who have attempted, with 20-20 hindsight, to reduce history to inevitability. “The only fixed rule of history is that there are no rules,” sputters Robert Cowley. “This very rulelessness is what makes history so full of surprise and fascination.” You can understand what happened, but you cannot show that it follows a logical path any more than you can predict the future. As Roger Spiller puts it, “…while history is usually explicable, it is often irrational. When dealing with the past, the test of common sense is no test at all.” The existence of alternative history books is precisely pivoted on this point. Event X had an Outcome O that directly led to Event Y. If Event X had had an outcome O’, instead, it would have led to Event Z. And there you have it – history is fundamentally altered. Surely, they point out, if Newton had perished of the plague at the age of thirteen, the history of science would have been vastly different.

Patterns of History? Complexity at the edge of chaos, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Macro guys respond patiently that the Micro-approach uses cause-and-effect logic too, only at a different level of analysis, and that it is faulty logic at that. To prove that outcome B would not have occured if not for event A, it is not sufficient to demonstrate that A causes B and not-A causes not-B; that does not preclude the possibility that some other Event C could then have caused Outcome B anyway. In other words, if Famous Man X had been throttled to death in the crib by his mum in an alternative reality, someone who we know today (or not) as Boring Sidekick Y may have actually decided to do what Famous Man X did, and may then have been known to us as Famous Man Y. So we may be calling them Hooke’s Laws of Motion, or de Moivre’s, perhaps; but the microwave oven would exist today, and the television, and space travel and atom bombs, even if the apple had never fallen on Newton’s head.

The Micro guys say the essence of history is chaos, unpredictable randomness with widely divergent outcomes; not every event, perhaps, but that there are tides in the affairs of men, which, when taken at the flood, lead on to fame and fortune; and when they are not taken, they – er – don’t. Our point precisely, the Macro guys say, history is the tide, not the men who take it at the flood, and tides are predictable over the long term; that individual wrinkles are smoothed out in time into essentially predictable trend lines. This predictability makes alternative history an exercise in fantasy and fiction.

To which the Micro guys say, what predictability are you talking about? Uncertainty is at the very heart of all history, not just alternative history. At the lowest level, nobody except Napoleon can say for sure exactly why he gave a certain command at a certain time, at Waterloo; and Napoleon is dead, so the historian has to make educated guesses for a living. Not our kind of historian, the Macro guys retort. Erraticism in individual behavior impacts Micro history, but has no impact on historical long-term trends.

Would things be different if certain events hadn’t taken place exactly as they did? Yes, say the Micro guys. No, say the Macro guys. And they are both correct, because they are answering different questions. If you mean, would history be different, where history is the process by which the past became the present, the specific route that was taken out of a billion possibilities, then yes, the Micro guys are right, any change could cause a different route to be taken; but if you mean, would our present be significantly different? Then, possibly not – the Macro guys are correct, and most of those billion possible routes converge over a long enough duration, to a tiny number of highly probable ‘states’ for our universe, exactly one of which is our present reality. If Newton had not lived beyond puberty, high schools today would still be teaching students that gravitational force varies inversely with the square of distance.

Now here is what I believe.

At the very cusp of the chaos of the Micro-guys, at the outer edge of the predictable order of the Macro-guys, lies a thin sliver of territory, the Realm of Complexity, in which I believe we all live. We are a golf ball that rolls around in this space. There are howling winds – economic, political, ecological, technological, cultural and social agents of change – that buffet us from everywhere, attempting to push us in one direction or the other. We move in the direction of the net effect of these forces. Ever so often, a brave new wind pipes up on its own, entirely against the flow, and by sheer strength of will and force of personality, it stops us dead in our tracks, and then moves us slowly in a new direction. Sometimes other winds come to its assistance, and the motion becomes rapid in the new direction; other times the new wind gets exhausted, loses energy, and is quickly forgotten, and we go back to the original direction, still under the influence of the earlier set of winds. This, in my mind at least, is history. And I like it this way. Roll the ball too much in one direction, and it slips off the territory I described, and it falls into the turbulent waters of chaotic anarchy and barbarism; roll it too far in the other, and it drops into the sand traps of dull, sluggish, de-humanized order. But most often the ball stays on the green. Neither extreme is a desirable outcome; life, and history, exists in the complex territory in between.

I have reviewed a book of counterfactual history before – it was Niall Ferguson’s ‘Virtual History’. Ferguson himself wrote a brilliant introduction to that book, which I thought established the theoretical foundation to the whole argument rather well, but I recall thinking that the essayists who followed were patchy and not very good historians who at times let their own political biases show through their analysis. Here, I felt the situation was reversed. Cowley is perhaps not in Ferguson’s class as an academic, but he has put together a bunch of talented writers and historians. The individual pieces are well-written, and each has much to say, not just about the specific situation being analyzed, but about the subject of alternative history itself. Most of them agreed with me that while matters would certainly have taken a different turn if some key outcomes were changed, in final analysis, our lives today would more or less have not been a whole lot different. Victor Hansen says that if Socrates had died in battle in 424 BC, the Western tradition of philosophy would never have known anything about his life; but stops short of saying that the Western tradition of philosophy would not have existed. (Perhaps – who knows – we would be talking in glowing terms of Phaedo of Elis instead). Geoffrey Parker concedes that “there might have been a reformation without Luther, but it would have taken a totally different form”. “…of these and other events,” Tom Wicker ruminates, “it can only be said with any certainty that they would not have happened as they did, or when they did, or under the circumstances that actually prevailed,” Toujours ca change, toujours c’est la meme chose, “ quips John Lukacs, rather originally: “The more things change, the more they remain the same. Do they? Yes and no.”

So, finally, is history made by great men, or by great super-human forces? Don’t take my word for it, nor that of mere historians. Listen, instead, to Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of Germany, who learnt a thing or two about statecraft while effectively running Europe for the years between 1862 and 1890. Picture him glowering at you with fiery eyes below enormous beetling eyebrows, and thundering the words like some ancient prophecy of doom, from behind the most formidable moustache of all time, in a thick Teutonic accent: “A statesman has not to make history,” he begins in a low rumble, but his voice rises gradually as he continues, and ends in a ringing crescendo: “ but if, ever, in the events around him, he hears the sweep of the mantle of God, then he must jump up and catch at its hem.

Now picture him jumping up…Otto von Bismarck, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The mantles that great men cling on to are the coattails of Clio, the muse of History; that sweep that Bismarck heard is the whisper of broad historical trends. Broad trends, mind you. It is possible to predict, based on a sound knowledge of current affairs, if the political sentiment of a nation is going to be liberal or conservative, preoccupied with individual liberty or in social justice, over the next five years; pundits eke out a living out of such expertise. It is nearly impossible, however, to predict whether an individual teenager is going to lean to the left or right when he grows up.

In an alternative universe, one, perhaps in which I discovered Ayn Rand as a teenager rather than John Steinbeck, I may have agreed with the core premise of this book. In the present one, I didn’t, and so I don’t. But I think I would enjoy reading it in any universe.

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§ 5 Responses to The Sweep of the Mantle of God

  • […] thesis matches my own mental construct of the world. Broadly. Earlier in these pages (here , here and here ) I have talked about my belief that human history can be validly modeled on […]

  • It is a beautiful and crisp explanation of the micro and macro school of history.

    • psriblog says:

      Thanks – for this as well as for reading and liking most of my posts. I am terribly curious. How exactly did you stumble upon my blog?

      • I apologize for the late reply. I have been in an area with bad internet connection for the last few days.

        I was searching for a book review for, I think, Taleb’s Black Swan, on google, when i found your site.It has been a pleasure reading your blogs since then, for not only have they introduced me to many new works but they have been a pleasure to read in itself.

  • psriblog says:

    You are very kind. Thank you. I think we think in similar ways – it is not coincidental that the books you read and the views you have about them (in your blog) are similar to mine.
    I will resume my blogging soon, please do keep visiting and sharing your views, and if possible, introducing me to other books on similar topics.

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