Those familiar with War and Peace will know Tolstoy’s central philosophical argument: that ‘great men’ and ‘great events’ don’t really make any difference, because things will play out in more or less the same way regardless.
Take the Battle of Borodino. Tolstoy casts the veteran Russian commander Kutuzov as one of the novel’s voices of wisdom. He doesn’t want to fight a battle, he wants to retreat into the interior and wait for the inevitable disintegration of Napoleon’s army. But he is forced to fight one by the Tsar and his coterie of boneheaded hawks. There are 75,000 casualties. This has no impact whatsoever on the outcome of the war: the Russian army withdraws, Moscow burns, the French retreat, and ‘General Winter’ and the Cossacks do the rest.
Shakespeare, incidentally, gives expression to much the same idea when he has Macbeth say, ‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ Both the tragedies and the history plays are suffused with this sense of human futility in the grip of a hopeless inevitability.
There are more formally academic versions of this theory of history, notably that of Fernand Braudel and the Annales School of (mainly) French historians. Their key organising concept is la longue durée – essentially the idea that what matters are long-term processes of economic, social, and cultural change, by comparison with which everything else is so much froth.
What has this got to do with archaeology? Well, of course, la longue durée is fundamental to the discipline. It’s true when we look at medieval field-systems and village morphology. It’s even more true when Acheulean hand-axes are pretty much the only thing we find to represent 1.5 million years of hominin activity.
But I suspect that our commentators – Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Braudel – are on to something in relation to modern times as well.
That is not to say leaders and events never matter. I think they are wrong about that. There are historical turning-points. If Charles I had succeeded in carrying out a military coup in London in January 1642, or Louis XVI in Paris in July 1789, or General Kornilov in Petrograd in August 1917 – if, in other words, the English, French, or Russian Revolutions had been smothered at birth – does anyone seriously want to argue that world history would have been essentially the same?
On the other hand, are there not great epochs of time when leaders and events make no real difference? I’ve always considered Ancient Egypt to be a classic illustration. This great civilisation was launched by a package of radical innovations in the years around 3000 BC: irrigation works; long-distance trade (especially in metals, timber, and stone); literacy and record-keeping; numerical notation and geometry; standard weights and measures; the calendar and time-keeping; and the science of astronomy.
Then what? Then stagnation. Egyptian priests studied the stars, not the soil, and wrote manuals on mummification, not natural science. The wealth produced by Egyptian peasants was spent on warfare, monuments, and luxury. Egyptian artisans were despised as manual labourers. So Egyptian civilisation looked essentially the same in 30 BC (when it was taken over by the Romans) as it had done in 3000 BC.
Do we not live in such an epoch now? Are not giant forces in motion – growing social inequality, looming climate catastrophe, rising arms expenditure, pandemic disease – in relation to which all the strutting and fretting of world leaders, full of sound and fury, seems to signify nothing?
Are we not at a potential turning- point in world history, but facing the terrible possibility that the world will not turn – in which case will our fate be not mere stagnation, but the collapse of civilisation itself?