In your first essay on Asimov’s Psychohistory, you wrote:

Discussions of psychohistory usually turn into debates on the role of the individual: can one person significantly affect the course of history or not? We all have our pet cases proving one point of view or the other. I have a strong opinion on the issue– but I’m going to suppress it.

Ok, now what if you don’t suppress your strong opinion on the issue? What’s your take?



That refers to the Great Man theory, most clearly articulated by Thomas Carlyle. the opposite poles of the debate:

  • History is made by  Great Men, and all you need to study in history is the sequence of great men– mostly kings and religious leaders, though to appear cultured we can throw in a writer now and then.
  • History is made by grand social forces, from the raw and specific (who has the oil or the silver) to the abstract (a widespread desire for national rebirth). Looking at Great Men is simplistic hero worship; social forces produce them, and if one dude didn’t come forward, another would have.

Very roughly, we might call these “old-fashioned” and “modern” ways of writing history. An old-style history was the story of one king after another. A modern history looks at a far wider range of actors, tries to find underlying causes, concentrates not on how leaders differ but on how societies do.

My position isn’t very exciting after all; it’s that both poles are obviously wrong. Or both true, if you prefer.

In general, the Great Man theory is silly. If you have a question like “Why did Europe spill out over the whole globe after 1500?”, then looking at key figures is virtually a waste of time. Even key abstract factors are subject to furious debate. But it’s hard to seriously maintain that that whole process would have proceeded entirely differently if a different set of leaders had won out.

In science and invention, it’s especially evident that very often an idea is just in the air, and we over-fetishize the question of who got it first. Newton and Leibniz both invented calculus; the steam engine was a collaboration of a whole series of British and French inventors; the US and USSR were both in a position to develop atomic weapons and spaceships. The development of the Roman Empire, of capitalism, of the industrial revolution, of anti-colonialism, of the civil rights movement, would have gone about the same even if some of their particular founders were hit by a bus.

Plus, I do prefer modern histories! If I read about Ming China, I’d feel cheated by an account of the lives of each of the Zhu rulers.  I want to know about how the laws changed, why they sent out treasure fleets and why they stopped, how well the examination system worked, how the economy was developing, why Neo-Confucianism was so attractive, how administration differed from previous dynasties, how the environmental situation was growing more serious, how women and minorities were faring.

Yet, it still seems obvious to me that certain people change history. Most of Carlyle’s list— Muhammad, Shakespeare, Luther, Rousseau, Pericles, Napoleon, Wagner— I’d actually throw out, except for one: Muhammad. Though he had intriguing forerunners, notably Zaid ibn Amr, there was no historical inevitability to a monotheistic religion appearing just then, uniting all of Arabia, and then bursting out to take over territory from Spain to Indonesia.

People can and have speculated endlessly about the US Civil War. I think an excellent case can be made that the Northern victory was not inevitable, but was largely due to three men: Henry Halleck, Ulysses Grant, and Abraham Lincoln. To wit: the war showed that in post-Napoleonic war, defense was far stronger than anyone imagined. The North had far more resources, but struggled for years to put them to effective use. The public, and most generals, believed in huge victories won by frontal assault, something that was simply not possible. Most generals could not comprehend or implement Halleck’s “anaconda strategy” of strangling the South’s production capacity, till Sherman and Grant did. If the plan had taken two or three years more, very likely the North’s will to pursue it would have faded. Lincoln’s assassination, of course, put the country in far less wise hands. It can be doubted if Lincoln could have charted a far more progressive path, but it seems likely that he’d have done better than Johnson.

In science, I’d suggest Albert Einstein. He was by no means the only thinker who could have come up with relativity and quantum theory, but no one else was likely to have come up with all this by 1905. Plus, his and Szilard’s letter to Roosevelt about the atomic bomb must be one of the most consequential documents in history.

I’m writing about syntax right now, so I have to mention Noam Chomsky. Again, his ideas weren’t unprecedented— Morris Halle had some similar approaches. It’s hard to explain, especially if you’ve actually read Chomsky’s books, but something about his work simply galvanized people. He created a whole field of syntax and has dominated it, for good and ill, for sixty years.

In short… the broad sweep of history would probably be the same without any particular individual. But the identity of entire empires, the spread of entire religions, the success of this or that nation, would be quite different. The timing of scientific discoveries could differ by decades or more.

And of course, once an individual has changed things, that creates a momentum of its own. Once an Islamic empire existed, that had immense impacts on Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia, and that affected everything from the rediscovery of Aristotle to the spread of coffee drinking.

Stories, of course, can hardly avoid the Great Man syndrome. Probably no one wants to hear how Sauron was defeated by the superior industrial resources of Gondor and the greater appeal of elven ideology. They want to hear about how Aragorn and Gandalf and Frodo did it.

Asimov, whatever he was trying to do, couldn’t help reinforcing the Great Man theory although psychohistory was, in principle, its refutation. He keeps building up Hari Seldon and later R. Daneel Olivaw; he manages to capture the inevitable failure of the Empire without making the rise of the Foundation similarly inevitable.