The NY Times magazine tomorrow has an article about the idiosyncratic relationship between Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel. It points out that, while they clearly dislike each other, they have to work together for the sake of a sustainable, coherent European Union:
I grew up with old lefties, who viewed history as arising independent of, and superseding, any given individual--economics, if you're a Marxist; or Hegelian dialectic, Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier theory of American history, or Gibbon's portrayal of Roman decline as irreversible by even a supremely gifted emperor. The alternative, derisively labeled the 'Cleopatra's Nose' theory--that were her nose three inches long and covered with zits, history would have changed dramatically--depended on idiosyncrasy, individuals arising unpredictably in crucial places. Alexander, Paul of Tarsus, Mohammed (for the non-believer in Islam's Allah), Napoleon, other examples hard to dismiss come to mind.
Karl Popper called the notion of historical theorizing along grand lines excluding individuals 'historicism', and rejected it in 'The Poverty of Historicism'. Isaiah Berlin, too, was deeply suspicious. Large historical theories subordinating the individual, they said, leads to an acceptance, even justification, of totalitarian states and totalitarian actors, of egg-breaking to serve better omelets. They're wrong morally for that reason, they said, as well as wrong on their own terms, there being abundant counterexamples. Too, theories like those can't be tested all that well before or after the fact, leaving competing theories subjects of contention as, say, Newton's mechanics weren't until new observations demonstrated their limits. Nevertheless, Hitler, say, clearly arose in a context of German defeat, hyperinflation and so on, but was, in fact, Hitler and nobody else, and it's hard to imagine a different individual, even leading a Nazi Party in control of Germany, having a similar effect. So, Sarkozy, whose supermodel wife's pictures, some of them in the nude, are up on the Internet, and Merkel, the 'matronly' PhD chemist, grating on each other in a relationship obviously arising out of their personalities, required by larger forces, whatever they are, to work mindful of the constraints and requirements that the historical moment requires of them.
Meanwhile, mathematics has demonstrated that very large systems indeed can be exquisitely dependent on initial conditions. Ray Bradbury's 'A Sound of Thunder', in which a time traveler's butterfly killing step in the Jurassic produces huge alterations 100 millions of years later, and Edward Lorentz's butterfly effect in weather modeling, come to mind. It's hard not to imagine the possibility that world history, too, may produce far less inevitability, far less a priori and a posteriori coherence, than it's natural to suppose. Leaving not only Sarkozy and Merkel with more personal responsibility than might be supposed, but, perhaps, even lesser individuals--you and me, perhaps, even...