Tolstoy Playing Football

There is an argument that doesn’t sit very well with people because it defies everything they have learnt about History: one man cannot change the course of historical events. Tolstoy in War and Peace is a staunch defender of this idea, arguing that Napoleon did nothing, that greater forces were at play, and that the macro overcame the micro.

Over the summer, I tried to convince a friend, a dyed in the wool rationalist, of this fundamental shift in my own thought. He would respond, “So do you think Ludwig van Beethoven had no effect on music? Do you think Martin Luther King Junior’s fight led to nothing? And what about Leo Tolstoy himself?” And the infuriating answer that I would give was ‘no’. 

It’s so baffling, isn’t it, to think in this age of agency that the series of events that led us to this moment are not the result of individuals. The image of our DIY society crumbles when we consider that a great network of pulses and vibrations is responsible for who we, as humanity, are. And that therefore everyone’s actions are responsible for what happens, even when History takes an extremely dark turn, and we don’t even know it.

It’s a pretty hard idea to grasp, but I think an analogy with football can help. (Disclaimer: I am no football expert, but I have seen enough games to know why the off-side rule matters).

Here we go: a football match is a battle and the league is a war. The managers are generals, the owners of the club politicians, and the players soldiers. Everyone watching the match are civilians, while everyone commenting the match are journalists, consultants or pub pundits. 90 minutes is an arbitrary timeframe, just like dates and years to define different periods. And a goal scored and subsequent win, loss or draw are those things we call ‘events’, the spume on the wave of History.

I could go further and talk about local and national economies, the reputation of towns, advertising, international repercussions and the different interpretations we can have on the course of events.. But I fear becoming fanatic. Suffice it to say that the analogy holds up and I hope you, reader, can agree. 

Can we therefore say that a football team wins a match because of one person? Sure, they might have scored the winning goal, but there are an infinite number of variables that lead to that goal being scored: the weather, what they ate for breakfast, their childhood, what was going on three weeks ago, the look someone just gave them, a fan shouting loud enough to be heard, and so forth. A manager might take a team to win the league, maybe even twice in a row, but would the pundits pin all the victory on one person? And what about the other way round, when relegation comes knocking – surely that is more the effect of bad training, itself a result of bad choices made by people who do not actually play on the field?

If we then apply this lens to History, the Tolstoy argument becomes clearer. All the more so because it has many more factors, some that are either only known for an instant, or unearthed years later with more evidence. 

As luck would have it, Blackburn Rovers – my home team – lost 7-0 against Fulham on Wednesday night. As I rarely go to matches, living abroad, my friends and family pinned the blame on me. It’s football superstition, of course, but I’m convinced a slither of this joke was true. Because I was at Ewood Park on 3rd November, the home team had their heaviest defeat ever.

This is clearly absurd. Why? Because one person cannot influence History. 

One thought on “Tolstoy Playing Football

  1. An Empiricist in Sheep’s Clothing.

    Surrendering agency to ‘a great network of pulses and vibrations’ is folly, even if you’re right.

    If greater forces necessitate the removal of individual actions from the temporal cause-and-effect of History, you are left standing reluctantly in an unfamiliar camp; welcome to your positivist nightmare.

    Regardless of the truth of your position, I reject it by virtue of its utility (something I require in a personal philosophy). To stick with the football analogy; a striker who does not believe his efforts can make a difference will never succeed. Ronaldo is a superstar, not because he does nothing, but because he acts in the belief that the consequences of his actions are directly attributable to him. He would not be Ronaldo if he believed otherwise. (This might be your point)

    You have limited your discussion to historical success stories, but the truly malign consequence of the idea sits at the other end of the (perceived) achievement spectrum. By divorcing individual actions from their consequences, however proximate, accountability for failure is lost. A pinch of your premise applied to success leads to humility, no bad thing. Failure, however, requires a robust set of beliefs to overcome; believing in the incoherent, directionless nature of Tolstoy’s chronological quagmire will make the path to redemption hard to see.

    The acceptance of your idea guarantees someone no place in History. The belief that the individual pursuit of aims can make a difference, however misplaced, is the source of the inclination to act. History is unforgiving to those who do not take extreme ownership of their dominion and act in the interest of change.

    I will continue to believe in Great Men. Not for any rational reason, but because it helps.

    Liked by 1 person

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