Theories of History
February 21, 2014 | Historiography
Historians, as a whole, spend a significant amount of time on the philosophy of history. The question is: when looking at the past in terms of decades, centuries and millennia, rather than hours, days or years, what, if any, are the patterns of history? What drives history? There are many competing answers to that question.
One popular idea today is that history is random – that the interaction of billions of humans and their choices with all the other natural factors in the world creates history with no discernible flow or path. This seems to be demonstrated by the fact that history often turns upon the smallest factors. One lost order, and an entire battle is lost. One unwise interview, and a politician falls. This is demonstrated by the famous poem, For the Want of a Nail:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Another idea, which was expressed most clearly in the 19th century, is that history is driven by great men, like the heroes of Greek mythology. “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,”1 wrote Thomas Carlyle, one of the men who formulated this theory. The idea is that the world is changed by great men – that the United States of America would not have gained its independence without the great founders, or that Karl Marx changed the world forever with the creation of Marxism, and without him, it would not have happened.
In opposition to this is what we can call the Great Forces Theory, that the world is not shaped by a few men, but it is changed by factors in societies as a whole. It holds that the great men are formed and given the opportunities to succeed by the movements of the societies in which they live. One man who espoused this idea in the 19th century said:
[Y]ou must admit that the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown….Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.2
This idea suggests that the important men do not shape the forces and movements in history, but the forces and movements of history create the great men. That Karl Marx did not change the world with the creation of Marxism, but that the movements in the world created the situation where Marxism would take hold, and Marx just happened to be the man to rise to fill the void. The Great Forces theory takes many forms. Some say that history is driven by economics, or technology, or the struggle for human rights, or a hundred other factors.
There is another philosophy of history, which has fallen out of favor in recent times – that history is controlled by God. Many figures in history have held this view including George Washington. He wrote in 1778 about the latest campaign of the War for Independence:
The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations….3
It is this system of history that is put forth in the Bible. It says that at times God uses kings, whose hearts he “turneth it whithersoever he will,”4 or he chooses “the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.”5 Although men are used by God in history, He does not rely on them. If the person you might expect to do something does not fulfill their role, than God has planned for someone else to take their place. As Mordicai told Queen Esther:
For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?6
The Bible also teaches that history is going somewhere. It had a beginning and will come to an end when God’s plan is completed.
1. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle (London: Chapman and Hall, 1840) p. 34.
2. The Study of Sociology by Herbert Spencer (London: C. Kegan Paul & Co., 1881) p. 34-35.
3. George Washington to Thomas Nelson, Jr. August 20, 1778.
4. Proverbs 21:1.
5. 1 Corinthians 1:27.
6. Esther 4:14.