I love the "what if's" of history, and try to teach them to my son and my students as a way of drawing them into the dramas of history. My son's middle school history book makes the rise and fall of empires seem inevitable, determined by great forces beyond the control of any one individual. But history is much more fun and interesting when you see that seemingly small factors could have made a big difference.
- I was about 14 when I saw and read Shakespeare's "Richard III" for the first time. I was spellbound by the dramatic scene in which King Richard died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, and therefore lost the Wars of the Roses or English civil war to the Tudors because his horse got stuck in the mud, and didn't have the proper horseshoes. Richard famously shouted, according to Shakespeare, "A horse, a horse. My kingdom for a horse!"
- King Richard's death probably inspired this proverb: "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 battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail."
- Blaise Pascal had a theory that "Cleopatra's nose" played a crucial role in history. If the beautiful Cleopatra had an uglier, less beguiling nose and a less seductive personality, Pascal reasoned, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony wouldn't have been interested in her. Marc Antony wouldn't have been so distracted by her and pressured at the Battle of Actium, which he lost to Octavius because he stupidly undermanned his ships. If he hadn't lost the battle, he wouldn't have been so humiliated and distraught to kill himself, Cleopatra wouldn't have followed suit and killed herself and Egypt would have remained powerful. If Octavius hadn't conquered Egypt, the Roman Republic might not have grown into the Roman Empire, and the very foundations of Western Civilization that dominated Europe, Asia Minor and Northern Africa -- the "glory that was Rome" -- would not have developed. Indeed, Westerners might not primarily worship a Christian god. Dominic Sandbrook has a clever and ironic "what if" article about Antony and Cleopatra's victory at Actium leading to an Egyptian Empire that overwhelmed Rome and dominated the West for centuries.
Who's to say what other accidents of history make us who we are today?
We usually only see how small actions make large differences in hindsight. And of course with hindsight, sometimes seemingly dramatic events -- great successes, devastating failures -- with a sense of perspective ultimately prove to have made little to no difference as all.
Living outside my native US, living in Turkey -- a place at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and so often at the crossroads of history -- I am more aware than ever before that we are all products of cultural histories we barely perceive nor understand, so it pays to be humble.
I recently finished a book about the forced population exchange of 1.5 million people -- Greek Orthodox Christians from Turkey to Greece and Muslims from Greece to Turkey in 1923 -- one of the saddest stories I've ever read. Many did not want to leave. Perhaps the population exchange averted civil war. But it changed the character of both nations. Yet most Turks and perhaps most Greeks seem unaware of their common heritage of living close together and in relative harmony less than 90 years ago.
Our religions, our politics, our ideas, our cultural identities, nationalities, borders, from one angle look to be accidents of history and the triumph of chaos theory.
From another angle, they look divinely inspired, the invisible hand of God at work on earth. Certainly that's the way the Turks think about the formation of their nation -- inspired by Allah -- and many
Americans think of their nation as inspired by a Christian God.
From still another angle, the "great men" theory of history seems to be what mostly shaped us. Or maybe it wasn't great men but opportune circumstances that made ordinary men great. Or maybe historical change is mostly the consequence of great movements of ideas larger than any individual, or invisible systems like economics and psychology -- maybe they control and determine human behavior and destiny more than other factors.
The definitive answer to these questions is unknowable. No one answer suffices, eh? Perhaps there are elements of truth in all of the factors that make up history.
- "What Ifs" of American History
- "What ifs" of World History
- Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been
- Nationality Matters: "How much we owe to the decisions of early explorers, colonists and settlers, particularly from the British Isles, and to the intellectuals in the British Enlightenment."
- Neil Monro has a thoughtful essay on "causation in history."