Ridley Scott's Napoleon promises to be the highlight of the cinematic season. Scott has already proven he is a master of the historical epic with Gladiator. Both the lavish trailers and reviews suggest the new film will have all the ingredients of a blockbuster: cavalry charges, military parades, cannon fire, hand-to-hand conflict and blood-thirsty revolutionary crowds. Who could ask for more at Thanksgiving?
The two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza also provides us with an excuse to revisit one of the thorniest of all historical questions: What is the role of great men and women in history? Is history made by unique individuals pursuing their dreams? Or is it the product of vast impersonal forces?
This is more than just an idle question. The answer we give shapes the sort of history we teach in schools and universities. It also influences our approach to civic life: The more we emphasise the role of human agency, the more we will be inclined to be active citizens.
The question of Napoleon's role in history divided two of the greatest writers of the 19th century. Thomas Carlyle used Napoleon to illustrate his contention that "the history of the world" is essentially "the biography of great men." Leo Tolstoy, by contrast, presented him as a silly little man who was swept along by the majestic forces of History.
Carlyle the historian thought the proper attitude to the past was to marvel at the way great spirits shape events. Tolstoy the novelist thought the proper attitude was to look beneath individuals and events to see more profound currents at work.
Since then, the public has tended to side with Carlyle and the historical profession with Tolstoy. Napoleon is reputedly the subject of more biographies than anybody other than Jesus (the first full-scale biography was written before his 30th birthday).
He is also the subject of numerous previous films, starting with one of the first films ever made, Louis Lumiere's 1897 short, and including one of the masterpieces of silent cinema, Abel Gance's Napoleon. But most historians have generally turned away from Napoleon the man, not to mention Napoleon the lover, and focused instead on the deeper currents of history: the mood of the masses, the price of grain or the logic of imperialism.
E.H. Carr's classic What is History? (1961) — a set-text for generation upon generation of Oxbridge history candidates — provides a sense of the contempt that serious historians have for the "great man" theory. Carr described this view of history as "the Bad King John and Good Queen Bess view" and argued that it belonged to the view of historiography adopted by primitive peoples and children.
It might just about be fit for the nursery, but it was certainly unfit for the seminar room where serious historians discussed social forces and economic trends. (Carr devoted most of his professional life to producing a 14-volume favourable history of Soviet Russia, an opus that combined credulity and dullness in equal measures.)
Carr's disdain for the "great man" theory was reinforced by interlocking historiographical fashions. Marxist historians such as Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson promoted "history from below" — that is, the history of ordinary people rather than namby-pamby elites.
French historians such as Fernand Braudel focused on "anonymous, profound and silent history" rather than that of mere events. (Braudel's two-volume "The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II" had a great deal to say about the sea and almost nothing about Philip.)It was also reinforced by seemingly discordant intellectual tendencies.
Political scientists downplayed the role of individuals because they wanted to prove that their subjects were predictive sciences. What is the point of all that tedious quantification if fate can be changed by the whim of any one person? And post-structuralist theorists such as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault tried to write individuals out of history in their pursuit of the deeper structures of power.
The historians made a substantial point — that individuals don't make history just as they please but do so in the context of established power relations. Alexander the Great could not have conquered the known world if his father had not been the most powerful king in Greece.
Napoleon would not have been able to seize control of France if a popular revolution had not swept aside the old regime and plunged the country into anarchy. But structural determinism can go too far by emptying history entirely of agency and personality.
Consider a few questions. Would Britain have stood firm against Nazi Germany if Lord Halifax had become prime minister rather than Winston Churchill, as many leading Conservatives wanted? Would the 1980s have gone as they did in Britain if Ted Heath had continued to lead the Conservative Party? Or would Singapore be the economic powerhouse that it is today if Lee Kuan Yew had not taken it in hand?
There are certain moments in history — when wars break out, when regimes break down — that make room for great individuals. Paradoxically, many great men and women feel that they are nothing more than agents of something bigger than themselves: Churchill talked about walking hand-in-hand with destiny, and Bismark about grasping the hem of History's cloak and walking with him a few steps. But in fact, they can also change the direction of events.
Great leaders are change-makers precisely because they mobilise human qualities that cannot be reduced to a social "force" or an "economic" factor: determination, charisma, vision, imagination, even deceit. Churchill inspired faith because he refused to acknowledge the possibility of defeat despite Britain's parlous position.
Charles de Gaulle restored France's postwar position because he revived the country's belief in itself by spinning a tale of glory. Lee Kuan Yew turned Singapore into a hub of the global economy through sheer force of will and vision. "What seems inevitable becomes so by human agency," as Henry Kissinger remarks in Leadership.
Napoleon remains the perfect example of the ability of a single individual to change the course of history, so much so that, to this day, ambitious young MBA students dream of becoming the Napoleon of finance or retailing. He certainly came along at the right time — when the revolution was running out of control and people craved order and national reunification.
But his idiosyncratic decisions also shaped events in ways that could not have been predicted. If Napoleon's remarkable military talent turned an obscure Corsican into the master of Europe, his disastrous vanity also drove him to embark on a doomed campaign to conquer Russia.
He is also the perfect example of the mixture of good and bad that resides in the souls of the most famous leaders. There are plenty who have been wholly bad: Hitler most obviously, but also Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot and many others. But nobody qualifies as wholly good. Napoleon the Great justifies both Goethe's description of him as being "in a permanent state of enlightenment" and Madame de Stael's as being "an oriental despot, a new Attila, a warrior who knows only how to corrupt and annihilate."
The new historians who now control what history is taught in universities and schools have done much good. They have rescued the history of regular people from obscurity. They have revealed many of the hidden structures of power and influence that drive day-to-day events. But they have gone too far in downplaying the role of individuals or denouncing the exercise of moral judgment. It is time to push back.
Putting the great individual back at the heart of history teaching is not only good for our collective education in citizenship, it also teaches us that history is a matter of choices rather than a fait accompli, and that those are moral, not just technical, choices. It is also good for exciting young people's interest in the past: Just try contemplating Napoleon's rise from the periphery of French civilisation to the summit of European power, and fail to be enthralled.
Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg and is published by a special syndication arrangement.