Response to Dray

Chapter Four of William Dray’s Perspectives on History is largely concerned with the amount of control an individual has over massive events which affect millions of people, such as wars.  Dray seeks to refute A.J.P. Taylor, a historian who contended that Adolf Hitler was a passive figure reacting to other, more aggressive politicians, and to international trends which basically guaranteed the outbreak of a conflict, so he was not responsible for World War II, as other historians claim.  In my opinion, Taylor’s belief in the “inevitability” of certain events, and its implied denial of free will, is wrong.

I first heard this theory of history in the last part of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  The Russian scholar first advocates the determinist position on human conduct: every action we take is predetermined by our desires and our experiences.  Tolstoy then contends that the higher an individual’s social station is, the more he is subject to the wills of others.  Hence a father is subject to the wills of his mother and children, a coach to his players, a president to everyone in his country and most especially to his closest advisors.  According to Tolstoy, it is incorrect to call anyone influential: the general will of the masses, not the particular will of one person, is what moves history.  Napoleon, who considered himself a central figure, couldn’t have gotten anywhere without all the soldiers who fought for him, and the will of the masses is what put him in his lofty place and took him down.  Since the actions of these powerful masses were also determined, everything that happens in this world had to happen.

In my opinion, this “general will” so strongly advocated by Tolstoy and Rousseau is nonsense.  Certainly, I have never been a part of it: each time I participate in a class or an election, I act on my own behalf.  After each election, pundits speculate about what kind of statement “the people” made, disregarding that most “winners” had 48% of the country against them and that each person who supported him had different reasons for doing so.  If there is a general will, it is only as an aggregation of individual wills.  Furthermore, in some cases when everybody acts on what he thinks the others want, no one gets what he wants: the people who constituted the general will could not even understand it, so what utility could it have?

Thus, macro-level “circumstances,” such as “the anger of the German people” about the Treaty of Versailles, are not uncontrollable events or manifestations on the general will.  They are aggregates of the actions of millions of individuals, from businessmen to voters, all of them responsible for their own parts.  A war is never “inevitable;” someone was responsible for everything that leads to it.

As for Hitler, Collingwood provides us a better way to judge the relative causal importance of circumstances and of individual action.  He says that in some circumstances, the “cause” is the deviation from normality which leads to a certain event: for example, if a car stalls on a hill, we blame engine problems, not gravity.  In the case of Germany, Hitler was certainly the primary mover.  His personality and actions were the deviation for which we can blame the war[1].  (Hitler could have chosen to be a pacifistic dictator, of course.)  So individuals made the war possible, and then an individual plunged his country into the war.   Free will was involved all along.


[1] Time Magazine once understood this as well.  Its “Man of the Year” magazine was meant to acknowledge individual contributions to society.  The magazine has plunged in a Rousseauvian direction since then, as evidenced by its selection of “You” this past year.

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