Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Life and Death of the World Historical Figure

At the end of his short encomium to Mandela in The New York Review of Books, “On Nelson Mandela (l918-2013)," J.M. Coetzee writes, “He was, and by the time of his death was universally held to be, a great man; he may well be the last of the great men, as the concept of greatness retires into the historical shadows.” Then who will rescue us? Where is the hope? Even without the notion of God, it’s nice to believe that history takes a human shape. It’s something like the spirits that haunt Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Hegel believed in dialectic and historical necessity. But like a nuclear bomb which requires a powerful detonator, history has its servants, or World Historical Figures. Thomas Carlyle subscribed to the greatman theory of history, but such anthropomorphizing flies in the face of the variegated web of social and economic conditions which are the petrie dish that produces political leaders. Would Hitler have come to the fore, without a Versailles Treaty? You make your bed and then have to sleep in it. Would Roosevelt have prevailed without the Depression, Gandhi without British colonialism, Lenin without the Czars and Mandela himself without Apartheid? If Apartheid hadn’t been instituted, then Nelson Mandela might have ended up being a high powered lawyer. Look around you, how many determined men and women of great character, have become merely competent or even great in their jobs instead of being world historical figures? Is Mandela the last of the great world historical figures, or is it a little like Six Characters in Search of an Author? Is it a matter of timing and the fact that the world has become so complex that the outlines of history themselves blur the prospect of greatness? Perhaps we no longer appreciate the great men and women in our midst since it’s more difficult for them to shine out. Barack Obama is a source of disappointment to some who thought he would be great, but maybe the multivalent problems he has faced make his greatness harder to appreciate.

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