Now I understand that most of you think Ian Welsh is one ‘O’ short of a Marx brother (Ianno?) but so am I (ekko, definitely). What I like about him is he’s not afraid to tackle the big issues, for instance the ‘Great Man’ theory of history.

For those unfamiliar it goes something like this, historically significant events are the product of exceptional individuals who, while acting within the constraints of their environment, make decisions that change things.

The alternative is ‘social’ history which is kind of a timey whimey, well it would have happened anyway compendium of economics and social movements that made this particular arrow of time inevitable.

Ian kind of agrees with my position which is that the currents carve their own paths but a fallen twig can change a stream.

I give you as an example Themistocles.

He was among the first ‘democratic’ politicians.

(T)he new institutions of the democracy required skills that had previously been unimportant in government. Themistocles was to prove himself a master of the new system; “he could infight, he could network, he could spin… and crucially, he knew how to make himself visible.” Themistocles moved to the Ceramicus, a down-market part of Athens. This move marked him out as a ‘man of the people’, and allowed him to interact more easily with ordinary citizens. He began building up a support base among these newly empowered citizens:

However, he took care to ensure that he did not alienate the nobility of Athens. He began to practice law, the first person in Athens to prepare for public life in this way. His ability as attorney and arbitrator, used in the service of the common people, gained him further popularity.

Themistocles continued to advocate the expansion of Athenian naval power. The Athenians were certainly aware throughout this period that the Persian interest in Greece had not ended; Darius’s son and successor, Xerxes I, had continued the preparations for the invasion of Greece. Themistocles seems to have realised that for the Greeks to survive the coming onslaught required a Greek navy that could hope to face up to the Persian navy, and he therefore attempted to persuade the Athenians to build such a fleet.

In 483 BC, a massive new seam of silver was found in the Athenian mines at Laurium. Themistocles proposed that the silver should be used to build a new fleet of 200 triremes, while Aristides suggested it should instead be distributed among the Athenian citizens. Themistocles avoided mentioning Persia, deeming that it was too distant a threat for the Athenians to act on, and instead focused their attention on Aegina. At the time, Athens was embroiled in a long-running war with the Aeginetans, and building a fleet would allow the Athenians to finally defeat them at sea. As a result, Themistocles’s motion was carried easily, although only 100 warships of the trireme type were to be built.

In short a lying war mongerer though Athens had real enemies, mostly created by fostering regime change in Asia Minor among city-states nominally allied to the Persian Empire, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Do Great Men and Women Change the World?
by Ian Welsh
2016 May 30

In some cases, a person we call great fills a role someone else would have filled, and does it no better than anyone else would have. Sometimes they fill a role someone else would have filled and perform it so well it makes a huge difference. And sometimes they wrench history about, in a role someone else would not have filled.

Let us start with a man who filled a role someone else would have, but did it brilliantly, and it mattered.


The Revolution almost inevitably ended with a dictator. I don’t think, given the sort of revolution France had, that could have been avoided.

That it was Napoleon, one of the greatest generals in history, mattered. He didn’t have to be a great general to get the job, he had to be in the right place at the right time. A competent general could have gotten the job.

Napoleon almost never lost a battle. Other French generals lost often. That mattered. Napoleon, wherever he went, changed everything: from ending the Holy Roman Empire, to shattering various other bonds of feudalism, Napoleon changed Europe far, far beyond France. A man who lost even a few more battles than Napoleon did, wouldn’t have.

If something is inevitable, someone will do it. The specific individual Who does it only matters if they are extraordinary. If they are just very good at what they do, well, someone else very good could have stepped up and the difference would have been minor.

I suspect this applies to a lot of earlier “Lords of Industry.” Ford, for example.

In the “inevitable” but it mattered who it was category I’d slot, say, Genghis Khan. He wasn’t the only one trying to unify the Mongols, but his degree of success rested on his own particular genius, which, oddly, was mainly that he was an extraordinary judge of ability and character in other men and women. Temujin’s generals and administrators were extraordinary, and he made loyal followers out of people he had been enemies with. Similar to Shaka (but much more successfully since he didn’t have to face 19th century weapons), he was also able to turn his society into an extraordinarily efficient war machine.

So who came out of nowhere and changed the world? Who forged a position which wouldn’t have existed otherwise, then did something extraordinary with it?

I find it hard to think of anyone. In the intellectual sphere, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, for example, came out of a specific time and place where philosophers and teachers were very highly valued because they taught people how to argue. (Read Plato’s dialogues and tell me, for all his sneering at “sophists” he is not an amazing debater.)

Perhaps one can make a case for Newton, but Leibniz created calculus almost at the same time. Were the rest of his discoveries made much sooner than they otherwise would have been?

Or perhaps the great religious figures? Buddha, Christ, Confucius. Does a Buddha have to happen? Certainly the circumstances are there for one in the newly urbanized cities of northern India with their loss of faith in the old Vedic religion. Indeed, modern Hinduism really comes out of that period as well, for all they claim the Vedas they have little in common with that religion.

Someone would have done what Buddha did, but I think a strong argument exists that how well he did it, and how he did it matters.


  1. hi Ek.
    This would be fun to discuss at length, maybe not easy here.

    “Do great men change the world”?
    If you define “change the world” as redrawing political boundaries, yes. But for most of human history, political boundaries have made little difference in how the average person lived.

    I think most things in the economic or technical or intellectual areas would have happened anyway, as quoted above. These are currents that can’t be resisted and aren’t being diverted by any mere twigs. Henry Ford wasn’t essential, nor Daimler and Benz, nor James Watt, nor the unremembered inventors of the horse collar or the mouldboard plow.

    politics is the other side of it. The history of wars and nations could not possibly have looked the same without Napoleon, Augustus Caesar, Mao, whoever, but that does

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