History as biography

The following thoughts were prompted by a reading of Shakespeare’s plays, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. The point is that, apart from all other considerations of literature and so on, both plays demonstrate the enduring human tendency to attribute all social change, all meaning in the flow of historical events, to Great and Eminent Personages. To humanise the flow of events and to attribute praise and blame for everything to a handful of Top Dogs.

The confusing world

It’s difficult for any of us to understand what is happening, what is going on in our own lives, let alone in the wider world. There is a natural tendency to humanise everything, to reduce everything to the behaviour of named individuals in order to make our lives manageable, graspable, bearable. If we can attribute everything to individuals then we can relapse into the standard human response of naming and shaming and blaming them. We can blame America’s ills on Donald Trump and Britain’s ills on Boris Johnson.

But on numerous levels, I think this is wrong, not morally wrong, just factually inaccurate. Even in my little family I can see how individuals are swayed by social trends and pressures. I can see how the economic outlook for my children’s generation shapes their attitudes. Multiply this by millions and you, fairly obviously, have a host of broad social, economic, technological and cultural trends which affect everything we hear, and so repeat, discuss, believe, argue about.

At the ‘highest’ level (if you want to visualise it as a hierarchy) are the cultural and ideological trends – the changing things people believe in, think about, argue about.

Beneath them you have economic trends – in our day and age drastic rises in oil and gas prices which affect the cost of fertiliser and transport which threaten severe food shortages this autumn and winter. In my country and time another huge factor is the failure of successive governments to build enough accommodation for the spiralling population, leading to the never-ending rises in house prices, and the dispirited resignation of both my kids that they will never own a home like their parents did.

Economic trends are strongly influenced by technological developments – the most obvious one in my lifetime being the enormous increase in the computerisation of all aspects of life, from high finance to finding a partner, almost everything seems to done via the internet, smart phones and social media, with all kinds of consequences, the most obvious being that people spend a huge amount of time on their phones and are immensely influenced by what they read coming through their social media feeds.

And at a deeper level there are the basic facts of geography and biology – the most important single one being the rapid heating up of the planet which is making severe drought more common, accompanied by the manmade destruction of all manner of ecosystems which we rely on for food and water, which will  greatly exacerbate the situation.

At a more individual level we are subject to our genetic inheritances which program whether we are tall or short, fat or thin, male or female, predisposed to heart disease, cancer, dementia and a host of bodily infirmities.

And then, of course, there is the constant threat of infections from outside, something most people are much more aware of since COVID-19 brought the world to a halt.

All this is hard enough to take in, and it’s only a superficial sketch of the multi-layered ‘reality’ we inhabit, or more accurately, the overlapping realities. Our minds inhabit a complex matrix of biochemistry, ever-changing sensory perceptions, the permanent wash of emotions and an endless tide of discourse and words which have no boundaries because all of these issues are, in effect, endless: discourses about the importance of oil prices on civilisation, assessing the impact of global warming, considering the effect of infectious disease on societies, explaining the importance of genetics in human behaviour, these are just a handful out of thousands of serious topics and no-one fully understands them. Vast subjects, impenetrably complex – and, when you start to begin to combine them, impossible for any individual to fully grasp.

The Great Man theory

And so it is much, much easier to think of society and what is happening in terms of a handful of powerful individuals. And this explains why most cultures, for most of human history, have done just that – attributed everything that happens to the eternal gods or, on the human plane, to Eminent Men and Women, to kings and queens and emperors and empresses and the like.

As far back as we have written records, they record the wars and acts of Great Men, emperors of China or India or Assyria or Egypt and the earliest histories which emerge from simple annals or chronologies likewise focused entirely on the doings of great men (and occasional empresses or queens).

The earliest histories had just two explanations for everything: 1. the wise or foolish behaviour of great leaders, and sitting above them, 2. the capricious interventions of the gods. 3. any unexpected turn of events could be attributed to the vague catch-all category, ‘Fortune’.

And 4. hovering behind all accounts was the primitive assumption that the present age is uniquely corrupt and degraded, a sad falling-away from some unspecified previous times when men were all upright, pure and noble.

Boris Johnson and the wheel of fortune

Armed with these four concepts you can, at a pinch, explain everything, right up to the present day. Using this template, Boris Johnson is a Great Man who Got Brexit Done, oversaw the fastest vaccine rollout of any western nation, and was leading this great country of ours onwards to greater things, when his treacherous colleagues, jealous of his achievements, conspired to stab him in the back and bring him down. To quote a Latin tag attributed to Cicero, ‘O tempora, O mores!’ meaning: ‘Oh the times! Oh the customs!’ But then again – a medieval commentator would say – no-one, even of Boris’s majesty and stature, can defy the turn of Fortune’s wheel, which is destined to bring even the highest and mightiest low.

One of the thousands and thousands of medieval depictions of the wheel of fortune bring the mighty low (Illustration by Jean Miélot to Christine de Pizan’s Epitre d’Othéa: Les Sept Sacrements de l’Eglise, about 1455)

See? Anything can be explained using these primitive concepts. Maybe more accurate to say, these concepts can be attributed to almost any events and the impression given that they’ve been explained, a completely spurious impression.

The Great Men theory in ancient authors

So it comes as no surprise when we get to the histories of the ancient (western) world, to discover that Plutarch or Sallust or Suetonius take a moralising approach to history, focusing on the character of the great men of the times they describe, and interpreting their behaviour in terms of the strengths and weaknesses. If this doesn’t completely explain the events they are chronicling, they could always add a knowing reference to Fortune which inscrutably intervenes to wreck the affairs of men.

I sometimes find it odd that the editors and translators of the editions of these ancient authors feel the need to explain the Great Men ideology of their authors, since it has been the default setting of most of mankind for most of history.

As John Wilders writes in his introduction to the Arden edition of Antony and Cleopatra, Plutarch was a very congenial source for Shakespeare’s dramas about the ancient world because, although living 1,500 years apart:

both men wrote on the assumption that the course of history was shaped by the actions of men in power and, for that reason, both were curious to penetrate into the subtleties of human character… (Antony and Cleopatra, Arden edition, 1995, page 57)

QED. It is only very recently that more objective, non-Great Men theories – broadly speaking, concepts to do with economics and sociology – have been developed. We can date this new development in human thought to the period vaguely referred to as the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Maybe we can pick an arbitrary date of 1776, the year Adam Smith published ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’, which introduced readers to the notion that we are all members of a globalised system of trade and production, and that our lives – whether we have jobs, what we can afford to buy, eat or wear – subject to events in faraway countries and forces beyond our control. Just as everyone in this country is going to suffer because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A revolutionary new way of thinking about societies and human existence.

This new, economics-based and sociological way of looking at society definitely accompanied the development of the industrial revolution as all manner of authors tried to understand the sweeping changes transforming society without anybody explicitly planning or wanting them.

We find Dickens objecting to the dominance of the new breed of ‘economists’ who want to reduce all human life to economic statistics (Hard Times, 1854), and Karl Marx, obviously, was writing works which engaged with the earlier sociological theories of Hegel, in Germany, and the post-French Revolution school of theorists in France. The revolution crystallised, accelerated and disseminated all manner of new political and social theories, kick-starting the feverish debates of the nineteenth century, Hegel, Marx, Bakunin, Comte and so on.

In the more pragmatic mercantile Anglosphere the industrial revolution prompted an explosion of social and economic theorists following Smith’s lead, Malthus, Bentham, John-Stuart Mill and so on. We still, to a large extent, live in this world, a world awash with ideologies and theories, none of which completely work or explain everything and so are subject to the endless updating, revising, revisiting and rethinking etc which fill so many books and political journals.

I’m not trying to recapitulate the history of modern political and economic theory, I’m interested in the way that, despite the jungle of modern social theorisation, the Great Man / Fortune’s Wheel theory of history persists and flourishes.

Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra

And so to what prompted these thoughts, Shakespeare’s plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra  which I read after reading about 30 texts from ancient Rome about history (Plutarch, Suetonius, Sallust, Cicero). When characters in these plays describe the lead figures, or the lead figures describe themselves, as world-bestriding colossi, they are doing two things.

First of all, they are reinforcing the Great Man theory of history, stymying any attempt to think beyond it and countenance less simplistic explanations. Again and again, reading ancient literature, you come up across this brick wall, this closed door. Nobody could think beyond it. it makes you realise how immensely intellectually free and liberated we are, in our age. Even if we don’t have all the answers, the answers we do have are infinitely more sophisticated, responsive than anything the ancients had.

But secondly, these old tropes continue to thrill us. The rhetoric surrounding great men in Shakespeare’s plays is wonderfully vivid and exciting:

CASSIUS: Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves…
(Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 2)

This is my final point: that the vicarious thrill to be experienced in the vivid rhetoric of power deployed throughout Shakespeare’s political plays is not necessarily a good thing. Food manufacturers add salt and sugar to processed food because the human palate is designed to respond favourably to their taste. The touch of salt or sugar on the palate fires basic, primitive nerves which release endorphins in the brain. because, during the course of human evolution, edible sources of salt or sugar were so extremely rare that our palates had to be sensitive enough to detect them. In our hyper-industrialised societies, manufacturers now exploit this basic human functionality and stuff so much salt and sugar in their products that the taste pleasure can become addictive. Hence the epidemic of obesity in the western world, due to the addiction of large number of consumers to products packed with unhealthy levels of salt and sugar.

Same with the Great Man Theory. It is the default setting of the human mind, it is the crudest possible way of thinking about politics and history and social change. Listen to vox pops of supporters of either Donald Trump or Boris Johnson and you realise that most people still cleave to a theory of society which predates the ancient Egyptians. “Don-ald! Don-ald! Don-ald!” Chimpanzees picking each others’ fleas are more sophisticated.

I’m exaggerating for effect, but the conclusion I’m leading up to is that a good deal of the pleasure derived from watching plays like Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra is comparable to the guilty pleasure of pigging out on junk food.

The author invites us to thrill to the rhetoric of power embodied in the many descriptions of ‘the triple pillar of the world’ (Philo on Antony 1.1) and ‘the greatest soldier of the world’ (Cleopatra describing Antony 1.3) or great men each owning ‘a third of the world’ (Antony of Caesar 2.2), becoming ‘lord of all the world’ (Menas to Pompey 2.7), to great men playing with half of the world as they pleased (Antony 3.11) or quartering the whole world with his sword (Antony 4.14) or deserving ‘the worship of the whole world’ (Eros of Antony 4.14), being ‘the greatest prince o’ the world’ (Antony on himself 4.15), and ‘his legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm crested the world’ (Cleopatra on Antony 5.2).

My point is that to thrill to this kind of rhetoric, to enjoy it, to be excited by it, is, intellectually speaking, the equivalent of wolfing down a Big Mac with large fries and a king-sized Coke. It is the basic, primitive , lowest-level human response to the society around us and abrogates the difficult but complex knowledge of the world we know we possess and know we ought to be employing if we’re ever to escape the mess we’ve got ourselves into.


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2 Comments

  1. colinhutton

     /  August 12, 2022

    A thought provoking essay. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Hi Colin. Thanks for your comment. I rarely devote an entire post to my own thoughts because I’m not always certain of them, or am all-too-aware of their weaknesses. So your support is very welcome. Best wishes, Simon.

      Reply

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