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March 14, 2020 / Congau

Individuals in History

It is scary to think that sometimes one decision made by one person has changed history. Napoleon, Hitler, Mao; men who didn’t fear power and can’t have worried much about the inevitable bad consequences of even their best decisions. They sure were extraordinarily self-confident. The world never became anything like what they envisioned, but today it is different from what it would have been if these individuals had never existed. How would they have felt if they had known what we now have? Would they have regretted anything? Would they have blamed themselves for the, in their view, unfortunate outcome? Probably not. They must have seen it every day: nothing went exactly according to plan and in this process, people would randomly die around them as unpredictable collateral damage. They were ok with that and must have had a sense of being almost divine masters of destiny when crushing people with their thumb and sending millions into an unknown fate.

Since I don’t believe that these erratic characters were gods, this is particularly disturbing. History has known its ebbs and flows, grand shifts and movements of people and cultures. It’s as if there was an invisible hand regulating it all, as inevitable and impersonal as the one governing the market. There is no one to blame; it happened, and one feels it had to happen. Impersonal history is like nature: it can’t be bad. Earthquakes and floods are not evil since they are not caused by man. History of mankind, the continuous string of tragedy, may be caused by humans, but mostly by no one in particular, so it’s a neutral fact.

Mankind consists of individuals, and individuals disappear in mankind. Both are true, and both are somehow comforting. But when an individual stands out, when a Napoleon among us grabs the scepter and decides destiny, we become subject to arbitrary power and there’s no natural justice anymore.

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