because history just ain't what it used to be

Opinion: History is Made by Individuals

In Opinion on February 22, 2010 at 08:37

by Bryan Fidler

History, from the Greek word historia meaning “knowledge acquired by investigation”, is the study of the human past based on sequences of events, and the underlying cause and effect of those events. In a debate about whether history has been created by people or individuals, who caused “the events” must be considered.

When looking at developments in science, mathematics and technology; individual accomplishments can be pointed to as events that changed the course of history. The first numeral system and system of weights and measures developed in 3400 BC in Mesopotamia was historic. The discovery of the solar system by Copernicus in 1543, Faraday’s development of electricity, the discovery of a smallpox vaccine by Jenner in 1796, and Fleming’s breakthrough discovery of penicillin in 1928 were all historic events in science (www.factmonster.com/ipka/A0932440.html). The invention of the telephone by Bell in 1875, and the first modern computer introduced by Zuse in 1936 are historical technological milestones (inventors.about.com/library/blcoindex.htm). All of these things were created by individuals, and were monumental events that changed the course of history. The causes and effects are studied, but not to understand the “event”, but to improve on it further.

In the area of the arts, there have been things created in the past by individuals that are still respected and enjoyed worldwide today. Greek and Roman architecture, Shakespeare’s plays, Renaissance paintings, Bach and Beethoven’s concertos are all examples of historical works of art created by individuals. These pieces in history stand alone and are not attempted to be perfected or improved. The arts are a part of our history largely created by individuals that we study, but mainly for enjoyment, not to determine underlying cause and effect.

So the focus here is on what most people consider to be history. The timeline of events that happened in the past, their causes and effects and what we can learn from them. Who has created this world history of events; people or individuals? Certainly, individuals who were known as strong leaders have helped to change the course of history, some for the better, and some for the worse. Even though “the people” put those leaders in place, or allowed them to rule, the individual leaders were the ones driving the decisions and making things happen. In all forms of government, democracy, monarchy, tyranny, and oligarchy, one person or a small group of people make decisions for the people they govern. Even a democracy has an individual, or a few individuals, placed in a position of power to run their country, such as the President of the United States.

So who are some of these leaders who have created history? One of the earliest is Alexander the Great who was the Greek king of Macedon from 336 to 323 BC. He is known for his great military tactical abilities and for creating one of the largest empires in ancient history conquering Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia and Bactria. However, Alexander was also known for his diplomatic strength and for spreading Greek culture into the east which flourished during his reign (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_the_Great).

Another leader that immediately comes to mind when great military tactics are mentioned is George Washington, the commander-in-chief of the American Revolutionary Army who led his troops to victory over Great Britain and became the first President of the United States. Other U.S. Presidents who are known for creating history are Abraham Lincoln, for leading the country through the Civil War and being influential in ending slavery in America, and Franklin Roosevelt, for framing policies that pulled the country back from the brink of economic crisis and led us out of the Great Depression to become a leading world power (www.thefamouspeople.com/political-leaders.php).

Another American leader who created history was Martin Luther King, Jr., a clergyman at the forefront of the African American civil rights movement who has become associated worldwide as a champion of human rights. A second individual who created history through his civil rights activism was Mahatma Ghandi.As a spiritual leader and pacifist he used non-violence resistance against British rule in India and later played a key role in the civil rights movement in South Africa (www.thefamouspeople.com/political-leaders.php). A third individual who was a historical figure devoted to humanity was Mother Teresa, who dedicated a major part of her life to serving the poor and vulnerable. Mother Teresa is known worldwide as a symbol for selfless love. She made history through her publicized travels around the globe to assist those fighting AIDS and recovering from disasters (www.thefamouspeople.com/political-leaders.php). On the opposite end of the human rights spectrum is Adolph Hitler, who as the leader of the Nazi Party violated the human rights of Jews in Germany through racial subjugation and genocide, brutally torturing and killing millions of innocent people.

A more recent example of history created by an individual that has not led to a positive course of events is Osama bin Laden, the leader of the Islamic terrorist group Al Qaeda. Opposed to the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 by hijacking four planes, flying two into the Twin Towers, one into the Pentagon and crashing one in Pennsylvania, killing 3,000 people(www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/binladen/who/bio.html).Bin Laden claimed responsibility for this event that was felt around the world on that day, and will be remembered as a part of history.

Therefore, when one reflects on history as the events or happenings in the past, individuals’ contributions, positive and negative, are what come to mind. It is these leaders’ visions and actions that have changed the course of history over time. Although these leaders were supported by “the people” that they led or represented, without the strength of the individuals, history would not be the same.

“A Biography of Osama bin Laden.” Frontiline. 2010. WGBH Educational Foundation, Web. 19 Feb 2010. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/binladen/who/bio.html).

“Alexander the Great.” Wikipedia. 02/15/2010. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Web. 19 Feb 2010. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_the_Great).

“Famous People: Political Leaders.” The Famous People.com. 2009. Famous People, Web. 19 Feb 2010. (http://www.thefamouspeople.com/political-leaders.php).

“The History of Computers.” About.com: Inventors. 2008. About.com, Web. 19 Feb 2010. (http://inventors.about.com/library/blcoindex.htm).

“Life Changing Science Discoveries.” Fact Monster.com. 2007. Pearson Education, Web. 19 Feb 2010. (http://www.factmonster.com/ipka/A0932440.html).

  1. i enjoyed reading your blog. It is empowering to think that individuals can make such a great (or terrible) difference. It would also be interesting to think about the followers as a group. What causes them to follow one person versus another? What kind of influence can an individual who is within the “school of fish” have in changing the direction? Just some thoughts.

  2. This is a link to my recent paper on Alexander the Great here: http://andrewbwatt.wordpress.com/2010/02/21/rubric-and-sample/

    The alternate viewpoint which you do not present, that history produces great figures, is just as important in understanding the history of the world. Choosing Martin Luther King, Jr. as the lens through which we understand the Civil Rights movement allows us to play up the relative peace through which African-Americans achieved full citizenship in the United States, but it ignores the white violence directed against the black community through lynchings and Jim Crow laws in the 1870s-1950s. Discussing Alexander the Great is wonderful because of both his achievements and his cruelty, but it is also important to understand that he and his father stepped into the power vacuum created in the Balkans and Greece by the collapse of Athens and Sparta after the end of the Peloponnesian War in 405 BC, and the Theban and Corinthian struggle for power thereafter. Alexander’s achievements seem relatively minor when one discovers that Rome built a far larger and more stable empire just a hundred years later, by taking the time to integrate each new conquest into the old empire. The names of great Roman generals are rarely known to the general public, other than Pompey and Caesar; and yet their achievements helped solidify our understanding of Rome as THE empire to imitate in the western world.

  3. It’s worth adding that I am EXTREMELY excited over your project, the western civilization blog, and I look forward to reading as many entries as I can muster the time to read.

  4. I wonder what is lost or gained by separating “the people” from individuals when examining history? Maybe clarity? hummm? Maybe not? hummm? I thinking about that:)

  5. You said ” history is the study of the human past based on sequences of events, and the underlying cause and effect of those events. It would seem to me that individuals, then, can’t create history, they can only contribute to it. The inventors you mentioned would not have been able to proceed without piggybacking off the acquired knowledge of those who came before. So then how and where would you propose to draw the line between the “individual” and “the people?’ And now that I put that into words, many historic events like the San Francisco earthquake have a key player that doesn’t fit either category. My final comment is a question of determining the “truth” of history. In doing research for our small town and my own family tree, I am often in a quandary because of conflicting reports of the same event. Does the main character determine the history even if they were liars or braggarts, does the newspaper determine the history even though they spelled the name of the key player wrong or does the historian determine the history even though the resources they work with are faulty? Is there ever absolute truth in history? Now you’ve made me do a lot of thinking. 8)

  6. Very good points, that I cannot disagree with. It is the individuals that make history-but who, I ask, creates the individuals?
    There is no singular answer here-for the answer is everything. The people make the individual, the circumstances create the individual, the world molds the individual. These individuals are catalysts for change, and seem to come precisely when some sort of catalyst is needed.
    If you have to, you can perhaps just say that the people, who in general are the also both the circumstances and the world, make the individual. And the individual, too, makes the world and the circumstances, which in turn affect both new individuals and the people. So there is world/circumstances, individuals, and people. Each of them is formed by the other two-a triangle to build upon.

    • I teach my students to think of a historical moment in time as a tetrad – a four-sided triangular pyramid – formed of a person or people, a place, a date/time, and a decision.

      Thus one of Alexander’s battles, is at Granicus, Anatolia. It’s fought between Persians and Greeks/Macedonians. It takes place in 334 BC. And the decision is between a Persian success or a Greek success.

      The next issue is one of scale. Nubia is filled with tiny pyramid tombs belonging to nobles, but they’re not nearly so well known as the Third Dynasty pyramids at Giza in Egypt. Some events are historical and loom large in our narratives because of personal connections — Joe’s voyage to America looks big to me because it’s how my family came to these shores. Yet he was one of about 20,000 Scots that year, and just one in a vast stream of European immigrants around the turn of the century. His decision tends to get lost in the larger statistics.

      Some historians specialize in small stories like Joe’s. Family geneaologists and members of the French Annaliste movement are among them. Others, like Herodotus and Gibbon, preferred the grand sweep of events.

      Having a sense of what kind of historian you are helps make choosing a writing style and an angle a lot easier.

  7. Deep thinking going on here… inspiring to me, as a teacher and a person. I am partial to the people make history theory in that we get a broader point of view. Individuals make up that view, but focusing on just one skews “what really happened” to just one view point. Making me think at 3:40 AM!

  8. This is a really good article! Congrats Western Civ class for putting this together. Job well done.

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