Saturday, January 21, 2012

Great Men

Is it a coincidence that so many of capitalism's Great Men - its leaders and captains of industry - are so utterly unworthy as human beings? It is surely unsurprising that capitalism's leaders should be such a disreputable crowd of scoundrels. After all, they are elected to run a system which thrives by robbing workers of the fruits of their labour and pursues competition by ruthless dishonesty, culminating in wars in which men, women and children are indiscriminately slaughtered upon the altar of profit. The system requires a certain brand of callousness at its nerve centre. To be elected, leaders need to tell complete lies with a straight face. Either that, or they must be clowns and puppets (Reagan or Bush) or masters of self-deception (Clinton or Obama).

The way they diminish and degrade their supporters is truly loathsome. Yet one of the saddest things about leaders is not how they behave but how their followers are forced to behave. The political follower is a miserable, pathetic specimen. These are people who will go the ends of the earth to defend the Great Man's reputation. The Obama-mania you so rightly say elsewhere preponderates in American politics.

Different views are held about the historical role of Great Men, ranging from the belief that history is made by Great Men, to the other extreme, that great men have no existence at all, that they are pure figureheads, and that they are largely fictitious personalities. One view says that great men make history, the other view says that they only personify movements and events, which develop quite independently of them.

Napoleon is quoted as having said “Mahommed’s case was like mine. I found all the elements to hand to found an empire. Europe was weary of anarchy, they wanted to make an end of it. If I had not come, probably somebody else would have done like me. I repeat, man is only a man, his power is nothing if circumstances and public sentiment do not favour him”

Engels said “That Napoleon, just that particular Corsican, should have been the military dictator whom the French Republic, exhausted by its own war, had rendered necessary, was an accident: but that if Napoleon had been lacking, another would have filled the place.”

The same could have been said of Cromwell and Abraham Lincoln. There is also the example of Lenin.

"Great Men" have had at times an influence in the working out and shaping of historical events. Many thinkers have acquired a greater insight into the workings of social and political events than their fellows and have passed this information on to help bring about a greater understanding of society and its development. This occurred with men such as Aristotle, Copernicus, Darwin, Marx and Einstein. All of them, however, could only work within the conditions and the limits of their particular time. In history, we are lead to believe that “Great Men” and ideas decide the course of events, where in reality, events, combined with their underlying conditions, establish the limitations and opportunities which determine in broad outline who shall be “Great Men” and which ideas will triumph.

Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most important intellectual figures has been described as “common sense raised to genius”

Artists and musicians sometimes make extraordinary imaginative leaps, but genius did not just drop from the sky. Michelangelo may have had sudden inspiration about how to fulfil the commission in the Sistine Chapel, but as a youth he had served a three-year apprenticeship in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio before turning to the study of the great masters of the past, including Greek and Roman sculptors. He had precursors and masters whose thoughts he pursued or revived.

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