Listen up, Horatio*
“Sometimes the light’s just shinin’ on me,
Other times I can barely see.” — Grateful Dead, Truckin’
The Greatness of Historical Leaders: Men and their Moments.
Have you ever wondered at the sheer good luck some of the so-called “Great Men of History” have enjoyed? Have you noticed how sometimes the career of the great leader falls into two phases, the first when everything goes well for him, and the second, when his run of luck is over and it all unravels?
This is a longish piece, but the topic is near to my heart. Please indulge me.
Alexander: Divine success story and Legend for all time
Alexander, King of Macedonia, Champion of Greek freedom, Lord of Asia, Conqueror of the Persian Empire, was preternaturally fortunate for his brief life as leader of armies. He became king by the death of his father; it was lucky he was so young – 20 years old, in his prime as a warrior — for in the ordinary run of fate, his father Philip should have enjoyed a longer life and accomplished his own victories against the Persians. In fact, Alexander and his mother Olympias have been suspected of being behind the assassination of Philip.
Alexander swiftly set his plan of conquest in order, terrorizing Greece by his total annihilation of the ancient city of Thebes. (This boy was tutored by no less a philosopher than Aristotle, teaching that Greeks were superior to other peoples.) Then off he went to fight the Persians. In 334 and 333 BCE he defeated Persian armies; he was nearly killed at the first battle, but was lucky again, saved by one of his father’s veteran generals.
On he went, taking two years to conquer Phoenicia, Israel, and Egypt, passing up a chance to enter the Jews’ Temple where YHWH had his throne, but going deep into the Egyptian desert to commune with an oracle who confirmed Alexander of his divine origin and nature.
With this certainty of blessed status among mortal men, he went on to defeat the Persian emperor against tremendous odds in a final battle, burned the Persian capital city, drove on east and north, entered India, and believed he would approach the final shore of Ocean and so, conquer the world. But his soldiers refused to go further east. The mutiny sent him into an epic sulk.
Good luck gone bad: Alexander runs out of worlds to conquer
He was wounded nearly fatally storming an Indian city, then punished his army for its mutiny by taking it to Babylon via lethal paths across a desert. Many died, but he made it to Babylonia, where he ignored the advice of an oracle not to enter the city. Within a few months his lover and best friend, Hephaestion, had died. Not long after, in 323, Alexander died aged 32, maybe of malaria, maybe by alcoholism, maybe of poison. At his end, he was planning new conquests; he might have turned west and absorbed Europe too.
Alexander’s star of destiny had risen, burned brighter than any ever known, and flamed out, all in 12 years. What did he accomplish? No lasting united empire was left to be his legacy, but he had opened the world from south Italy to west India for a Hellenistic civilization to take root; vast cultural exchanges swept across it that were not possible before him. The Greeks encountered Buddhism Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism, India and Persia met Greek ideas of art and philosophy. The religion of the Jews, and thus of Christians later, was altered. The merging, the flux, the fusing, of these cultures, fascinates.
Alexander had most definitely changed the world — as he fully expected he would, since he was a god. He had outdone his hero Achilles in his effects.
Napoleon: the Eagle/Phoenix emperor of the French
The other “great man” whose fortune was hardly credible is Napoleon. This general of genius, who held Alexander, Caesar and Charlemagne as his models of greatness, rose from obscure birth in Corsican hinterlands to bestride, first France, and then Europe, making few political errors as he ascended the bloody slope to supreme power during a period of deadly revolutionary flux.
The French had swung through all degrees of political regime since 1789: from an absolute monarchy, to a constitutional one, then, killing their king, through a radical left wing Terror, then a right wing counter Terror, under Republican forms of government. The People, the Nation, threw off the shackles of kings and aristocracy. Then they gave power to a man who wanted to be a despot.
Napoleon rose up on wings of victory in battles, was saved from the counter Terror when his patrons fell, and finally convinced the people who mattered to make him Emperor in 1804. Imperialism was his clear agenda; France had already been fighting the other Powers for a decade, and he would make his armies the instrument of his glory, egotism, and tyranny.
French armies led by the Emperor seemed invincible, from his stunning victory at Austerlitz in 1805 to his win over the Tsar at Moscow in 1812. At sea he was stymied. But truly his power had peaked in 1810, even before the invasion of Russia. In Spain, General Wellington and the guerillas stopped the French.
The signs of his coming failure were evident in his inability to make peace and live contented within it. His fatal flaw was incomprehension of the needs of defeated states to be respected, to have freedom from French oppressions, and his discontent with anything other than a Europe ordered only by his ideas of what was good for people.
Napoleon’s ego was insatiable. He believed in his Destiny, in his Star, and like Alexander, would only be stopped when his good fortune suddenly ceased. In 1814, he surrendered. He was sent to live in exile on a small Italian island.
The Drama King gets an encore performance
As if to make his legend more dramatic and intense in the telling, Napoleon had one final act of great fortune when he escaped from prison, was able to regain his throne in France, and terrified his enemies once more until his defeat at Waterloo. Mistakes in both strategy and tactics, which he would not have made in his prime, were key to his failure to win this crucial battle.
The Hundred Days of this final chapter are like Napoleon’s career in microcosm, with his unbelievable return to power, his chance to win all with one “throw of the dice” in battle, and his crash to defeat because of mistakes in his judgment. Again, as one might say about Alexander, one might argue that Napoleon did not deserve to die successful. His megalomaniac sense of destiny and a special place in history are repellent. Such an ego deserves no sympathy.
Napoleon, like Alexander and Charlemagne, did not leave a united empire in his wake. Still, like them, his career had opened vast areas to the influences of new thinking and ideologies, which would have never been widespread without the brief period when his empire encompassed so many lands. Though he had caused the deaths of millions by his prolonged wars, and elicits little liking from us for that, we cannot deny that Napoleon shaped our world, and ushered in an era in which democratic ideas birthed in France would alter Europe.
Tremendous Fortune and an ordinary King: Charles V
To round out my thesis about good luck, I will describe the extraordinary good fortune of a man who inherited an immense empire and accomplished much less than one would expect he might have done. Was Charles simply “too average” for his unprecedented blessings of inheritance?
Have you, dear reader, ever heard of Charles? Probably not. There’s the rub.
Charles of the House of Habsburg was born in 1500 CE; each one of his four grandparents bequeathed to him a territory of Europe that had wonderful prospects before it. From his grandmother Isabella, he inherited Castille and the new lands of America, rich beyond imagination in precious metals from Mexico and Peru. His grandfather Ferdinand left him the throne of Aragon, eastern Spain, with its marvelous maritime and commercial empire in the Mediterranean Sea including Sicily, south Italy; eventually all Italy was his.
From his other grandmother Mary he inherited Burgundian territories in east France, Rhineland Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. And last, but by no means least, his grandfather Maximilian left to Charles extensive lands in the Austrian archduchy, with Bohemia and Hungary soon to become attached to his crown. Over all this collection of lands Charles could dream that his title, “Holy Roman Emperor,” would symbolize a unified imperial realm, potent with one, singular purpose. The purpose, however, never “revealed” to Charles.
After four decades of rule, Charles abdicated, went to live in monastic retreat in Spain, and died after a year of – one might suppose – deep contemplation of the Latin proverb sic transit gloria mundi. (“Thus passes the glory of the mortal world.”) He had not done very much to make his historical record shine.
Why not? How had he not put his stupendous material resources to good use?
In a phrase, he was an average man given far more opportunity than his ability could turn to advantage. Ordinary individual + extraordinary opportunity = underwhelming consequence. An Alexander or Napoleon would, could, surely have done more – correct? That is the fascinating question.
Three possible career paths to greatness might have laid ahead for Charles, if he could have pushed through on just one, with ruthless determination in the manner of Alexander. One, he might have chosen to be a Conqueror and Champion of Christendom, and led crusading armies against Islam and the mighty empire of Muslim Turks. Or two, he might have decided that Spain would rationally plan to expand with a system of imperialism in the New World. Or three, he might have made Germany the focus of his energies, made certain that Protestants did not shatter the Roman Catholic Church there, and used his armies to break the autonomy of German princes with one central German government. All these are of course hypotheticals; Charles didn’t imagine them.
Ordinary individual + extraordinary opportunity = underwhelming results
There are solid reasons why none of these fabulous projects would become reality for Charles, since the New World, the Turks, German Protestantism, and princely power, all had colossal strength to resist Charles. His empire was never really singular, because all its parts – Burgundy, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Castille, Aragon, and Germany – were strange to each other. No single nation among them was “the imperial nation” — whereas Alexander had his Macedonians and Napoleon had the French. I still sense mystery in his life.
Charles seemed to lack any sense of destiny and grand blueprint for historical greatness. He was devout, loved his faith and the Church despite its many defects. (It was his influence on the papacy that finally brought the Church to reform itself in a great council from 1543 to 1547).
But nowhere in his writings – and he left many letters and a booklet of advice to his heir – can one see a glimpse of Charles as a Man of “World-Historical Significance,” in the privacy of his mind. Napoleon believed in his greatness and aimed to manifest it; Alexander knew his divine mission. Not Charles.
Charles’ relative lack of ego is attractive, yet without more missionary drive he was doomed to merely hold on to what he inherited, and not pass on to his heir a larger empire and a grander prospect. In fact, Charles broke his lands into halves, one for his son, and one for his brother and nephews.
So much for good fortune, when it is not accompanied by innate genius or prodigious imagination. Charles got lucky in his vast inheritance; his good luck stopped there. He ruled in a time when other forces were stronger than the ones he could command. Protestants, the French, the Turks, and the German princes, not to mention the ambitious egotism of conquistadors in the New World, all combined to render his best intentions down into small effects.
One more man of destiny: Adolf Hitler
My examples have been men we cannot easily label “evil” leaders, but my last example is unavoidable and a man we conventionally describe with this word.
Hitler had ludicrous luck. He did not die on the Western front in WWI in his role as a message runner, which was a feat in itself. (Runners’ mortality rate was higher than average.) He did not catch a bullet in 1923 in his failed Munich Putsch. His jail sentence made him a right-wing hero and gave him time to write his manifesto, Mein Kampf , and he followed that short work with his second, The Yellow Book; both had mass readerships, though only the first is well-known in the English world. It is a mystery that such rantings had so many readers, and yet they did, and they helped his rise in the Nazi Party.
When any other Nazi seemed likely to be a challenge, Hitler triumphed over them, as with Strasser and Rohm. He found men of “talent” (they had real ability, whether one likes what they did) who were devoted to him: Goering, Hess, Himmler, Heydrich, Goebbels, Bormann, Speer. And let us not forget Leni Reifenstahl, the brilliant maker of propaganda film. Their loyalty to him lasted. Similarly the German High Command seemed incapable of resisting him even when his insights turned to absurdities in military planning.
He survived more than ten assassination plots, none more serious than in 1944 when “the bunker bomb” was placed by an oaken table strong enough to shield him from a lethal blast. But by 1944 his luck had already turned; all his great inspirations in politics and war had been made by 1942. The defeat of France was partially due to his brilliant intuition, but the war he made to conquer Bolshevism and Russia in one campaign was outrageously badly planned and executed. Hitler must bear most responsibility for that failure, which might well have been a success had he let the supremely trained military professionals of the High Command do all the planning. General Guderian was absolutely correct to try and persuade Hitler to drive on to Moscow in August 1944, but Hitler listened, seemed to agree, and then ignored the advice.
The Worm Turns: the Fuhrer’s destiny leaves the path of fortune
The most mysterious and seemingly (to me, at any rate) fated decision Hitler made, that saved us from a longer war and more time for the Nazis to rule Europe, was in December 1941. Remember, Pearl Harbour on December 7th was the cause for the USA to begin war on Japan. America was still at peace with Germany for the next three days. Would that peace hold?
On December 11, when it was clear to Hitler and his generals that Russia would not collapse ‘like a rotten house” (his expectation), the Fuhrer went on radio and… told his nation, the great German Volk, that it at was at war with America too. The insanity of this is stunning.
Americans had not wanted war, but Japan forced it on them. Still, Roosevelt was unable to declare war on Germany in case anti-war feeling would react against him and hinder a war effort. He knew Germany was the more dangerous foe. After December 11, he quickly agreed to a “Germany first” strategy with the UK to fight Hitler most vigorously and eliminate him before turning to finish Japan.
Hitler made it easy for Roosevelt. What strange mental breakdown, what deep fracture of intelligence and reason – which Hitler had shown in his rise to power – occurred in the mind of the Fuhrer on that December day in 1941?
Declaring war on America, not finishing his war on Russia in 1941, were the start of Hitler’s reversal of luck. The timing saved Europe from more horror from a longer war, and more Nazi atrocities implemented across the continent.
I may regret this later, but today I am willing to assert that all of the events of history are not explicable in rational, empirical terms. Some decisions, some failures and some successes, have occurred in the lives of leaders without a rational cause to explain them. Things just go well or badly for them within set limits of time. They defeat all odds. Then they lose their magic touch.
Bob Dylan wrote in his autobiography about a time in his youth when he seemingly could do no wrong. All his moves led to greater successes. At some time that ceased. His star had risen, everything aligned for a season to make him a stellar phenomenon, and then it was over.
Not all of human activity can be revealed to have explanations of a material, political or psychological cause. Occasionally a person of power in the world has a path laid smooth before them, they achieve great things, and then, their work having been accomplished, they fade. “Their work” is the mystery.
This is not a declaration that I believe in God, Providence, karma, or a deified Fate and Fortune. But to those who have faith that materialist sciences explain everything, I must quote Hamlet:
* “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.”
If this column intrigued you, read Mark Booth, The Secret History of the World.